Jim, N9JO, didn’t give me much to work with when he commissioned this QSL. “I’m a former electrical engineer,” he told me, “and I’m retired.” That only narrowed it down to about half of the hams currently licensed.
Then he sent me a photo he’d found online of some other ham, asleep in his shack, feet up and sending CW with his toe. “QLF” it said. And that, I realized, was the hook.
What’s it like to be retired and hamming? It’s kinda like the guy in that picture — so that’s how I drew Jim. I added some loose hand lettering and bright blocks of color, and this is what I came up with. I can only hope to relax in my shack like that some day!
Jack, K4ITE, was a life-long employee of Western Union, and he wanted a QSL card that told its story.
In Jack’s words:
“I started working at WU in September of 1965 when I was 19. I began in the Installation Department and traveled all over the Southeast before Uncle Sam came calling. After four years in the Air Force I resumed my career and went to work at the Marine Base in Albany, GA in a very secure government switching center Western Union and RCA built and partnered on called Autodin. That system used a new technology at the time called “packet switching” which broke a message into several pieces and routed the various parts for security reasons via several different paths before being reassembled at the destination. Packet switching today is the backbone of the internet.
“In 1974 I was fortunate to go to work on our Westar project, America’s first domestic communications satellite system, and was trained on working in our various earth stations. My primary job was to maintain five microwave relay stations between Atlanta and it’s associated earth station just a few miles north of Scottsboro, Alabama. The satellites were in geosynchronous orbit, and the output power was only 5 watts in those days, so the earth station locations had to be in a natural bowl for RF quietness and away from cities, thus the requirement for a 52 ft. diameter dish. Those were interesting times. I finished up my 23 year career in a Telex switching center in Atlanta.”
That was just one email from Jack. He was understandably passionate about Western Union’s place in communication history and wanted a QSL that said so. It was my job to create it.
We eventually narrowed Western Union’s history down to three phases: messages delivered by pony, messages delivered by Morse code, and messages delivered by Westar satellite. Using reference images found on the Internet, I created a collage of the three, with Jack’s call sign looming large overhead. Jack wrote a brief blurb for the back of his card summarizing Western Union’s legacy to go along with it.
To give his QSL the feel of history, Jack asked me to print it on parchment. I work only with glossy stock but was able to use a texture overlay that looked like parchment.
Today, Western Union is a shadow of its old self, its name now associated with money transfers for those who can’t afford a checking account. In its time, though, Western Union was America’s first communications giant. I hope this QSL is a fitting reminder.
Sometimes the best illustrations are the ones that never make it to print. This cartoon of a pile-up was an unused drawing from a larger commission last month. Those of you about to participate in Field Day will hear more than a few pile-ups and will soon learn what they sound like. This is what I’ve always imagined they look like.
Personally, I identify more with the cartoon below of a CW operator: a smooth tone and smooth sailing. I’m not particularly fast but my favorite mode has long been CW.
“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!
Maybe 10 percent of my QSOs are CW these days (the rest are PSK31), and I can cruise along at up to 20 wpm as long as copy is good and I don’t have to write everything down. (Tip: You can speed up your CW if you read more in your head and learn to listen as if it were just another person talking.)
I thought I was fast — and compared to a lot of licensees, I suppose I am — but realized just how slow I really was when I worked Field Day with the CW old timers at the Alford Memorial Radio Club. Those guys copy 35-wpm-plus like it was nothing. I tried to help log and was left in the dust every time.
My goal for next year: Work enough CW that I can keep up with the Old Timers. What’s yours?
This 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.