Little Ralphie was a ham

 

“A Christmas Story” — the holiday classic movie about little Ralphie and his quest for a Red Ryder BB gun — is shown non-stop on TV this time of year. Did you know Ralphie eventually became an amateur-radio operator?

It’s true: the late Jean Shepherd, the author and voice behind the movie, became a ham in his teens and stayed licensed throughout his life. He was a fixture on New York broadcast radio, and his semi-autobiographical essays, published mostly in Playboy magazine, became the basis for the much-loved movie.

Shepherd was a hardcore CW operator, so much so that the American Radio Relay League had him introduce this code-practice tape circa 1980, produced several years before “A Christmas Story” premiered in theaters in 1983. You can hear it above. Enjoy  — and Merry Christmas!

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What did the fox say?

WX2S cartoon QSL by N2ESTSteve, WX2S, is into radio direction finding — that is, fox hunting — and prefers being the fox to being the hunter. That’s why he wanted a QSL that shows a fox at the operating position, with trophy plaques of all the “hounds” he’s eluded. You get extra points if you notice that framed picture near the bottom of the card that shows a hound with his rig on fire.

About the line on the bottom for Tom Floryck, the original WX2S … Steve says he never knew Tom but thought it only appropriate that he tip his hat to him with the new QSL. I couldn’t agree more.

The American Radio Relay League has an excellent online selection of articles about fox hunting here. Check ’em out!

 

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Danger: High Voltage!

dangerous high voltageThrowback Thursday: I drew this cartoon years ago for a chapter on safety in “First Steps in Radio” by the late Doug DeMaw, W1FB, published by the ARRL. It makes a really good point: Some of our equipment — particularly power supplies — can kill you if you’re not careful.

Always practice safety first — and NEVER work on high-voltage equipment when you’re not fully alert. If you were tired before, you’ll end up going to sleep a lot sooner than you’d planned.

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The return of Jeeves

KL7AJ Jeeves cartoon QSL by N2ESTThis QSL has a long history — several decades’ worth of  history, in fact.

It started in the 1980s when I illustrated one of the first of many QST articles written by technical whiz Eric Nichols, KL7AJ. That cartoon must have made an impression, because a few years ago when Eric wrote his book “The Opus of Amateur Radio Knowledge and Lore,” he asked me to illustrate it. I was honored to do so. Eric has been a friend and advocate ever since. (“Opus” is a great book, by the way. If you love ham radio and you like Dave Barry-style humor, you’ll like this book.)

One cartoon — illustrating several generations of ham radio — must have particularly caught Eric’s eye because I snuck Jeeves into it.

Ham radio history

Jeeves in the “Opus” cartoon

Who’s Jeeves, you may ask?

Jeeves, every ham’s fantasy assistant, was a recurring character in cartoons drawn by Phil Gildersleeve, W1CJD, for QST. Gildersleeve — or “Gil,” as he signed his cartoons — drew thousands of cartoons for League publications from the 1930s until shortly before his death in 1966. His work helped define the look of League publications for many years, and it was as good as or better than the work of any other professional cartoonist of his day, ham or not.  In my opinion, Gil was the greatest ham-radio cartoonist of all time, bar none.

Jeeves’ rise from the dead gave Eric an idea: Why not create some new Jeeves cartoons, casting the butler as a Rip Van Winkle character? In other words, the hobby had changed but Jeeves hadn’t, and therein would lie the humor. And with the ARRL’s 100th anniversary fast approaching, surely QST would be interested in printing some new Jeeves cartoons.

Jeeves filling out QSLs

the QST submission

I agreed, so I set about creating a new Jeeves cartoon very much in Gil’s style from one of a stack of ideas Eric sent me. I pored over dozens of old Gil cartoons, doing my best to make the illustration look as if he’d drawn and lettered it himself. Even though I was working with regular markers and brush markers  (Gil likely used pen and India ink), I think I came pretty close.

Unfortunately, QST wasn’t interested.

In a short reply to Eric, QST managing editor Becky Schoenfeld, W1BXY, wrote “While it is well executed, its ‘throwback’ style is something we try to minimize in QST, as we really need to be looking ahead and not behind us.” She later answered me personally with a longer email, emphasizing that “(QST editor) Steve Ford and I have been mandated by upper management to keep the magazine’s focus as current as possible.”

I was terribly disappointed. Still, I could understand League management’s logic even if I didn’t agree with it. If you were licensed before the mid-1970s as both Eric and I were and read League publications, Gil’s cartoons were inextricably tied to your earliest experiences of the hobby. But if you were licensed after the mid-1970s — about the time QST’s format changed and Gil’s work disappeared from print almost entirely  — you’d likely have no idea who Gil or Jeeves were. You may not even have cared. And there are a lot of hams who’ve gotten their licenses since the mid-1970s.

Problem was, I had this beautiful cartoon without a home — that is, until Eric asked me a few months ago to create a QSL for him. I suggested using the Gil cartoon. Eric agreed. The cartoon had finally found a home.

How to Become a Radio Amateur

A League book, circa 1972

I decided to design the card as a love letter to the League publications we both remembered, right down to the red-and-black color scheme, the draftsman-style hand-lettered call sign and the Futura typography. That it looks like the League book I studied to earn my Novice ticket is no coincidence.

There was one final touch that not even Eric noticed until last week. The call sign on those QSLs that Jeeves is frantically filling out? That’s Gil’s call sign.

For sentimental reasons, this is one of my favorite QSLs.

 

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Satellites, anyone?

ham satellite cartoonThrowback Thursday: This is a cartoon I drew some years ago for “Morse Code: The Essential Language,” written by L. Pete Carron Jr., W3DKV, and published by the American Radio Relay League.

What do satellites have to do with CW? Carron wrote at the time that the “low-duty-cycle characteristic of the code makes it especially popular for satellite communication.”

That was in 1986 (the book is now out of print). Who uses satellites now, and how do you use them?

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Have you ever caused a pile-up?

Who do I answer?When that rare DX station appears, we’ve all had the experience of trying to be heard in the ensuing pile-up. But have you ever caused a pile-up?

Of course, operators of DX stations are used to sorting out calls in pile-ups. But what if you’re a new operator who’s just called his first CQ and more than one station answers?  For the novice ham — like this one in a cartoon I drew for “W1FB’s Help for New Hams” — the effect can be overwhelming and seem like a pile-up.

If you’re a DX station on the receiving end of pile-up, how do you pick who to answer? And how would you advise a new operator to handle multiple answers to a CQ?

 

 

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Hitting warp speed with Morse code

high-speed CW cartoonThis cartoon I drew for “Morse Code: The Essential Language” by L. Peter Carron Jr., W3DKV, reminded me of how you know you’ve hit warp speed copying CW: You hear whole words instead of just letters.

When I earned my Novice ticket in 1973, it was all I could do to count the dits and dahs to copy CW. It kept me slow — but, fortunately, there were lots of other newbies in the Novice bands at the time who were just as slow as I was to keep me company.

At some point, I started recognizing whole letters, and I got a little faster. But it wasn’t until I started hearing whole words — at least, the short common ones like “the,” “it” and “for” — that CW started to feel comfortable.

These days, when I’m not on PSK31 I operate CW almost exclusively. I rarely use my microphone on HF. As a casual ham, I’m hardly a speed demon, but I am fast enough (around 20 wpm when I work at it) to have fun with a key. It’s also made me very popular at Field Day (CW contacts score higher).

How do you get that fast? It’s the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

“Morse Code: The Essential Language” was published by the American Radio Relay League but has long since gone out of print. It’s still available online, often in used editions. If you’re into CW, it’s worth seeking out.

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