How I Got Started

How I Got Into Ham Radio

It seems like everyone has a unique story about how they got into ham radio, so here's mine. I've been asked so many times, it's just easier to document it once. Then I can refer people to this page and we can save lots of time!

My dad was a ham radio operator since forever, at least in my frame of reference. He held the call sign W8KLH in Ohio and became K5PEV when we moved to Houston in 1957. Dad was a very proficient CW operator. Although he denied it, I think he could copy CW at 250 WPM and send twice that fast with a "sideswiper". As a result, I was always around ham radio equipment and hams. Some of the most interesting times I remember as a child was going with my dad to the local ham stores, hamfests, and radio club meetings. The equipment always intrigued me, even if I had no idea of how or why it worked.

My dad also taught morse code classes and many times dragged me along. I never learned more than the letters E T A R, because I knew that CW was obsolete and useless. Why would anyone bother with CW when they could just pick up a microphone and talk?

In about 1962, when I was 12 years old, dad loaned me an old Hallicrafters S-40B shortwave receiver to listen to when he bought a new receiver. I promptly put a piece of wire on the antenna posts and carefully laid the wire out on the ground and started to listen. Dad let me discover at my own pace and how was I to know that antennas were supposed to be in the air? Thinking back, the amazing part is that I actually heard a few stations! HCJB, VOA, Radio Moscow, Deutsche Welle all managed to get into the piece of wire on the floor. I was hooked on shortwave listening and have never given it up since.

It didn't take long for me to head to the library. I read all the books I could on radio antennas, propogation, electronics, etc. At 12 years old I didn't understand a lot, but I read anyway. Pretty soon I had the wire off the ground and also connected a real ground. Then I could hear lots more stations. I learned all about geography and foreign cultures, too. I was firmly convinced that there was no point to morse code. I didn't need it to listen to stuff from all over the world.

When I got into high school, I jumped at the chance to learn some math. By then it had become apparent that if I was going to understand why radios worked, I needed to know math. It turned out to be fun. I also studied Spanish, so I could understand lots more of the stations I was listening to. Finally I decided I wanted to study engineering, so I enrolled in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Of course my shortwave radio went everywhere I did.

After my second year in college, I got a summer job working for Gulf Oil in Kilgore, Texas, so off to a new adventure. Well, the adventure turned out to be rather boring. It seems that most people my age went out drinking nights and weekends and I was still under age. I decided, "What the heck, I'll learn Morse code." I went to the local library, copied the alphabet, memorized the 26 letters, 10 numbers and a few punctuation marks in a week or so. During the day, I translated every sign I saw into CW. At night I listened to CW on my trusty SW receiver. The first night I couldn't tell the difference between a "dit" and a "dah". The second, I recognized an "E" or two. The third a little bit more. At the end of 2 or 3 weeks, I could copy the slow CW stations! I wrote to the FCC to request the Novice application, which arrived a week or so later.

When I got the application from the FCC, I went around town and finally found a house with a big antenna out back. I knocked on the door and asked if there was a ham there. Well, I guessed right. It turned out to be the home of W5KJB, who just happened to work for Gulf Oil, too. I explained that I learned CW and needed someone to give me the Novice test. He tested me on the CW (I passed), signed the application and sent it off. In a week or so, the written exam arrived and I went back over and took that. Back then the FCC seemed to take forever to process applications and before my ticket arrived, the summer was over and I left Kilgore to go back to school in Austin.

Finally one day my mother called. She said that I had gotten a notice from the FCC and wasn't sure if they sent it to me instead of my father by mistake. I asked her to open it and see what it was - my Novice ticket. I asked her to give it to my dad without saying anything. That evening he found out I had a ham ticket. I wish I could have been there!

I set up a station in my dormitory room in Jester Center at the University of Texas. I lived on the 4th floor in a room overlooking a courtyard. I bribed a janitor to unlock the window (maybe they thought we would jump?) and ran a wire across the courtyard to the laundry room. In the laundry room, I took the vent off of a dryer, tied off the end of the wire and put the vent back on so it wouldn't be noticed. I had my trusty SW receiver, now a Hallicrafters SX-99, and a Knightkit T-60 transmitter, with a full 60 watts input to the final, and 2 crystals for 40 and 15 meters and one for 80 meters.I was on the air!

Well, I worked up the courage to send a CQ and when someone finally answered, I didn't know what to do! I soon learned, though. I managed to Work All States, along with around 30 countries from the dorm room. My CW speed went up quickly with all the on-the-air practice. I also learned how to grind crystals, fix equipment, adjust antennas, etc. All I can say is that it's a good thing those tube rigs were forgiving and that I didn't own an SWR meter!

But the most embarrasing part was that I found out that CW worked and was fun.

Unfortunately, just before my Novice ticket expired, I injured my hand in a car accident. I could copy CW at 13 WPM just fine, but I couldn't send. My ticket expired and I was off the air. I got busy with studies, married, graduate school, etc. No time, but ham radio was never far away from my thoughts.

Finally, I graduated and moved to New Orleans to work for Shell Oil. Within a year or so, I found a local ham to give me the Novice test again, since the rules had changed. (Previously, once you had a Novice ticket, you could never get one again - it was a one time shot.) I was issued the callsign WB5XAC. Unfortunately, a few days after my new QSL cards were printed, the FCC wrote to say that they had made a mistake. WB5XAC was reserved for experimental stations, so I was issued the call WB5YLC. I was back on the air again! This time to stay.

I also discovered that the FCC office was 2 blocks from where I worked, so it didn't take long to pass the exams and upgrade to Technician and General class. A year or so later a friend bet me that he could get his Advanced ticket before me. Always being up to a challenge, I studied the license manual, went over to the FCC office and passed the Advanced test the same week. Around that time I started experimenting with the digital modes. Oh yeah, I also went and bought a microphone, too.

A year or two after that I requested an Advanced call sign and was issued KE5WJ. WB5YLC was just too long on CW! I finally upgraded to Extra class and recently requested my current call sign: W5ALT. I hope never to change it again!