Me, A Radioman?

By Bill Price

[Reprinted with permission from Popular Communications magazine]

I spent hours each week devising ways not to spend hours each week actually studying and learning the code -- Until I joined the Coast Guard.........

In my single-digit years, I longed for a ’32 Ford roadster, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, all kinds of guns (including a bazooka & a cannon), and a short-wave radio. In his wisdom, my dad got me a short-wave radio. He also let me have a BB-gun, but my mother’s frequent admonitions about shooting my eye out crimped my enjoyment of the thing.

In the months leading up to a Christmas in the Fifties, I longed for the Hallicrafters S38-D, which had a control panel that looked as if it belonged in a B-17 bomber. I wore out that page in my Allied catalog. My dad opted for the improved S38-E with its all-glass front panel, not knowing I’d have traded performance for looks. It wasn’t much past noon that Christmas day that I decided I wanted a transmitter. I wanted something to decipher Morse code for me too, but not so badly as I wanted a transmitter.

License? Study? Test? Code? "Naaaah, I don’t want a big powerful transmitter—just something to get me around the neighborhood—well, maybe down into Philadelphia." My dad, who usually did know best, bought me an ARRL license manual and novice study guide on the very next business day after Christmas that year. "Study, pass your test, get your amateur license," he said, "and I’ll get you a small transmitter."

I had an "Elmer"* nearby, but I never spent time with him asking questions about things I didn’t understand. And there was the code. I spent hours each week devising ways not to spend hours each week actually studying and learning the code. I probably spent eight or 10 years of my life looking for a way to use a powerful radio transmitter without getting a license. I would see ads for CB radios, but they were beyond my savings account balance, which was usually a quarter (there were no minimum balances then). Eventually, my dad got a pair of CB radios just about the time I joined the U.S. Coast Guard, so I never got to use them very much.

After 13 weeks of boot camp, my hopes of pursuing the rate of Journalist were dashed (they only had about 12, and there was a waiting list), and the one opening for Parachute Rigger was filled, our boot-camp career advisor told me that I scored high in my Sonar Pitch Memory Test, and my Morse code recognition test. If I wanted to get into school, I’d have to pick between Sonarman School and Radioman School, or end up chipping paint on an icebreaker somewhere. With apologies to all my ping-jockey friends, I was not about to give up the chance to use a transmitter just to chase submarines and launch depth charges. Radioman it was.

I’d like to pause here to discuss the one thing that keeps the world going ‘round: Motivation. Without motivation, we just don’t get out of bed, we don’t go to work, we don’t shower. The Coast Guard (and other fine branches of the military) has plenty of motivation to handle getting up, working, and showering. To my surprise, they had a great motivational system in place for learning to copy Morse code at a minimum of 20 wpm, learning to touch-type at a minimum of 60 wpm, and learning the other fine points of military and commercial communication procedure.

Before we attended a single class in Groton, Connecticut, we ate breakfast. It was good chow, as chow goes, and it was served by those who did not live up to the expectation of Coast Guard Radioman School and the other schools located there. Since we students got up very early, those who fed us breakfast got up very, very early, and were required to be polite to those of us still making the grade. I never once had to be reminded to study.

After six months in Groton, I was granted the authority to use BIG RADIO TRANSMITTERS! I sent official communication of great importance—sometimes life or death, sometimes matters of national security. I was taught encryption secrets (don’t even ask) and granted a neat clearance which authorized me to hide out in the crypto-shack and play with the neat gadgets. I learned to drop the power on our commercial frequency transmitters and ask passing freighters and passenger ships to mail postcards home from their next port of call.

Sometime during my four-year hitch, I learned that my dad had nudged me, cajoled me, steered me into joining the Coast Guard, preventing my Uncle Sam from drafting me into the jungles of southeast Asia. He helped me learn to save lives and use that radio transmitter I’d longed for.

On my first North Atlantic Patrol, I copied an SOS with the Captain standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. As for becoming a journalist, I did publish a ship’s underground—no, that would be underwater newspaper. Never did learn how to rig a parachute. People serving in the Coast Guard just didn’t jump out of many planes.

During my stint in the Coast Guard, I got to ride a Harley, fire a five-inch gun (just once), shoot a .45 Automatic, and march with an M1 Carbine dangling from my right thumb. I have never owned my own bazooka or cannon, but a neighbor here in the Old Dominion has a lovely collection of civil war cannons, which he fires for us each Fourth of July. He is fortunate that he owns enough land to drop a croquet-ball into his own cornfield with a one-pound charge.

They don’t use Morse code anymore in the Coast Guard, and there’s no threat (not today, anyway) of being drafted into jungle warfare, but if you can get in, it’s a clean place to grow up, learn something, and put away a few bucks for an education. My N3AVY amateur call sign is rather ironic for an ex-Coastie, but I’d have had to be Russian to get U3SCG.

Semper Paratus.


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