St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

River Road Ramblings Column

Radio Days

When Brother Everett and I were in our early teens, we were enthusiasts for anything to do with electricity, science and radio. The Madison Free Traveling Library sent “The Boys First Book of Radio” to my mailbox with all sorts of electricity plans. My 4-H electricity project book showed how to make electro-magnets, a telegraph and an electric motor, all projects I Blue Ribboned in at the Polk County Fair.

The telegraph was, as I remember it, a piece of board with two nails pounded in about an inch from one side and a piece of steel tin-can cut in the shape of a fat “T” nailed with the bottom of the T on the other side and the roof of the T over the nails. We then wrapped the two nails with “bell wire” (insulated door bell wire from the hardware) making sure both were wrapped in the same direction and connected together. To this another smaller piece of the tin can was made for a switch and then it was hooked up to two flashlight batteries making a crude telegraph.

Two of these could be connected together by long wires and you could push down a key on one and the tin cans would be drawn down to the nail magnets on both. Morse code instructions were included so you could bang out dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot and be sending SOS! You just clicked your switch and released it quickly for a dot, held it a second or more for a dash.

We bored a hole through the wall between our adjacent rooms, threaded the connecting wires between them and started sending code. Of course, after each send, the sender would run around through the doors and hall and ask if the other got the message right.

The batteries ran out quickly. Mom wouldn’t buy more and didn’t like having all the flashlights dead. Luckily we remembered Everett’s electric train had a 6 volt transformer that plugged into the 120 volt wall outlet, a never ending source of enough power to communicate even the most lengthy messages.

I had my old Zenith short wave band radio, given to me by Uncle Maurice after it quit running. For years it had been the radio for the Cushing Feed Mill where Maurice was working when it quit. He knew I liked to try to fix stuff, and gave it to me outright as they had a modern replacement made from plastic instead of the beautifully varnished wood table model Zenith. In the photo attached, just below the radio dial is the Magic Tuning Eye – a green tube that showed if you were sharply tuned to the station or not.

I took the radio home. It was filled with ground feed dust, like the whole mill was, covered a quarter inch deep. I took the four screws holding the radio mechanism out and pulled it apart. I carefully cleaned the case and speaker until it shown. I removed the 6 tubes and then vacuumed (a traveling salesman had come to Mom’s house in the 50s and convinced her to buy a vacuum with every attachment known to man or woman for $400, an amount that was a month’s income or more) it out and then scrubbed it out and tried to get off the rust of the metal parts. It cleaned up nicely.

Then I put it back together and plugged it in. One tube didn’t light up at all. It was a 7B8 as I recall. Everett and I had a good supply of radio and TV tubes by then having scavenged all old sets that came through the Sterling Dump. Mr. Edler, the radio repairman in St. Croix Falls, occasionally gave me an old un-repairable radio to take home to study too and the neighbors were free with their old ones too, knowing we would give them a good home. Everett had advertised in the local newspaper “Wanted old floor model radio with short wave bands,” and the neighbors had emptied their attics from big old floor models to wooden table models that had been disgarded when the radio became a small part of the living room and the TV took its place.

I put in an un-tested 7B8 and turned it back on. The tube glowed warmly orange and the radio crackled to life. I had cleaned the tuner and it turned smoothly with the freshly rosined string connecting the knob to the large glass enclosed pointer dial. Of course, I had already hooked it up to the big antenna hung from my window upstairs in the house to the barn a 100 feet long and high in the air.

Station after station came in on the AM dial. I switched to one of the several short wave dials and soon found Radio Moscow, and all sorts of sounds only someone familiar with the shortwave bands knows how they sound. Clumped in some areas were Morse code signals, some of them slow enough I could recognize a few letters.

The shortwave band was a window onto the world. Not only were there stations all across North America, but from all over the world. As I got familiar with them, I learned when they broadcast in English, usually for an hour a two every day. I could listen to the BBC from England, practice my HS Spanish (two years with Rodger Meyer in SCFHS), find out what the Commies were saying, and if I strained, improve my Morse code listening too the ham radio folks pounding out their Morse code to each other.

When I went away into the world first, when I started college at River Falls, I immediately joined the local ham radio club. Along with several others including Reg Ronningen out of Frederic, I studied Morse code and radio theory trying to get up to 5 minutes per word on the telegraph and learn the rules and regulations for Amateur Radio. Most of us got our Novice license—allowing us to go on the college ham station and talk to other hams across the world!

The station at River Falls was a bunch of surplus Navy equipment we got for free for being affiliated with MARS (a military radio network where we agreed to forward radio messages from soldiers—mostly in Vietnam—to their families in America). With right setup, you not only could pass along a text message, but you could “phone patch” them in and let the two parties talk to each other for free.
Our transmitter was 24 volts. Dr Brown, our advisor, managed to get a huge metal box with two 24 volt dynamos in it that we could plug into a 240 volt outlet. They would slowly rev up to speed and put out a 24 volt source of power, shaking all of 4th floor North Hall from our headquarters in the unused coat closet.

As an active group on campus wanting to upgrade our equipment we approached the Student Senate. Alan Murray was our spokesman. A funny thing happened. The Student Senate (Judge Robert Rasmussen was a member then), got a little confused and jumped onto the idea of a campus radio station rather than an upgrade in our ham radio station. So, within a year, WFSP FM (where the free spirit prevails) was up and running under the Journalism department while we were still shaking 4th floor North. The radio station still exists but the name is changed to WRFW. It covers about 50 miles at 88.7 on the FM dial.

I didn’t do much ham radio activity. I found hams mostly wanted to talk about their radio equipment, radio shacks, and ham radio rather than converse about what was of interest to me.

I upgraded my license to Technician level in the 1980s at Rochester where a very active group still exists. Again, the traffic amongst hams didn’t really interest me, so I let my license KZA0 (I can’t quite remember if that is right) lapse.

Nowadays communication is so easy with the Internet, I haven’t thought about ham radio until the other day when I was moving some things in the basement and came across my massive Hallicrafter tube short wave receiver on my old unused ham radio corner in the basement next to my unused photo darkroom. I fired it up, waiting patiently for the tubes to warm to their jobs and again heard the familiar chirps, dots-and-dashes of my youth. I returned to those days of yesteryear when I timidly listened to propagandists on Radio Moscow turning occasionally to hear a speech from Fidel on Radio Havana all of the time worrying if Joe McCarthy might come into my bedroom and haul me away.

— — • • • • • • — — (73 Ham for Best Regards—the good bye in Morse Code. Aloud we would say it as dadadididit dididitdadah)