ARC-5 radios

We’ve been cleaning up Dad’s condo, and I got the job of going through nearly 70 years’ worth of amateur radio gear. I found some lovely old radios, including these military surplus ARC-5 series “command sets.” I don’t know when Dad got these. He was licensed as W2YLY not long after he got out of the service; he might have gotten these while he was still finishing college, but I’m guessing he purchased these around 1950 after he got his first job (he doesn’t remember any more).

ARC-5 radio BC-459A

Plenty of ARC-5s are still on the air, and W1IS is helping us to find them a good home. I like to think that some day I might wind up contacting one fo Dad’s old radios.

Winnemucca, Nev., to San Mateo, Calif.

“At the border of the [Great American] Desert,” said Mark Twain, “lies Carson Lake, or The ‘Sink’ of the Carson, a shallow, melancholy sheet of water some eighty or a hundred miles in circumference. Carson River empties into it and is lost — sinks mysteriously into the earth and never appears in the light of the sun again — for the lake has no outlet whatever.” Although I had no interest in walking forty miles across the Great American Desert, without water, as Mark Twain had to do when he was taking the stage coach to Carson City, Nevada, I was interested in seeing the Carson Sink, so I left the interstate highway and drove down U.S. 95. There was no water in the Carson Sink when I drove through, just thousands of acres of bleak desolate salt-encrusted, dried-up mud. The Bonneville salt flats west of Great Salt Lake in Utah are pristine white and shine in the sun, and look sublimely beautiful; but the Carson Sink looks like dirty snow, with more dirt than snow, and looks merely grim.

South of the Carson Sink, the land rose, and grew greener and greener, and there were ranches on either side of the highway, and then I was in Fallon, Nevada, the self-proclaimed “Oasis of Nevada.” I turned east on Nevada Route 116, drove some ten miles through hay fields and ranch lands, passed through the little hamlet of Stillwater, and then out into the 77,000 acre Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. East of Stillwater, the land grew steadily drier and less hospitable, and it seemed like the only vegetation was clumps of black greasewood (Sarcobatus spp.).

Stillwater NWR, Sarcobatus spp.

When I went around a bend in the road and suddenly saw open water, I thought at first that I was seeing those heat mirages so common in the Nevada desert. But no, it really was open water, surrounded by tule rushes and cattails.


The Stillwater marshes provide breeding grounds for many birds, and I saw juveniles of several species, including American Coots, Eared Grebes, Pie-billed Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, and various kinds of swallows. I saw Great Blue Herons, Loggerhead Shrikes, Snowy Egrets, Virgina Rails, White Pelicans — and watching huge White Pelicans glide in graceful formation against the backdrop of distant rugged desert mountains was a sight worth seeing. There were other animals in and around the marsh, too — lizards, and some hidden animal, probably a muskrat, that moved noisily among the rushes just at water level about five feet from where I stood, and and half a dozen jackrabbits.

Jackrabbit, Stillwater NWR

Mark Twain calls this animal a jackass rabbit: “He is well named. He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but a jackass.” One of the jackass rabbits I saw started from cover when I got too close, stopped when i froze and stared at me with big black and yellow pop-eyes, let me take a photograph of it, then started suddenly and bounded away and lost himself among the clumps of greasewood.

When I got to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, the sky was overcast, and the temperature was about 85 degrees — a very pleasant temperature in the dry desert air — but slowly the sun came out and the temperature climbed up to 97 degrees, and there wasn’t any shade to speak of, and I decided it was time to move on. When I sat in the car, almost instantly my back grew wet with sweat; it had been so dry that my sweat dried almost instantly as long as the air could get to me, but once the air was blocked off it soaked my shirt.

From North Dakota to central Nevada the highways are lightly traveled and there were many times when I couldn’t see another vehicle in front of me or behind me. But from Reno to the Bay Area, the highways are heavily traveled, and they wind and twist and go up and down abruptly, and I had to dodge the occasional crazed driver (all of whom seemed to have a California license plate) who thought it great sport to suddenly change lanes and dodge in front of me and slow down and speed up with no apparent rhyme or reason. Driving was no longer enjoyable, and I settled down to suffer.

From Maine to California, I had periodically been monitoring 29.600 MHz, the amateur radio national calling frequency for FM simplex, and in all those miles and hours had heard nothing but static. The driving required too much of my attention to want to try to listen to an audiobook, so I turned on the little 10-meter band radio and started listening to static. Just east of Sacramento, I realized I was hearing someone giving a call sign with a Hawai’i prefix. I replied, he heard me, and I wound up talking to Norm, who lives on the Big Island, some 2,450 miles from Sacramento. Traffic got bad so I had to end the contact — and of course by the time traffic got more reasonable, ten miles west of Sacramento, I could no longer hear Norm, and there was nothing but static once again.

And here I am, back home once more. I like the fact that I don’t have to worry about driving six or seven hours a day any more. I like seeing Carol again. I’m even looking forward to going back to work on Sunday. But I wish vacation weren’t over.

Black Wolf, Wisconsin

For the past two days, I’ve been staying in Black Wolf, Wisconsin — which is on the shores of Lake Winnebago — helping Ed put up a 28 foot vertical 6-band amateur radio antenna. Assembling the antenna took several hours, as there were hundreds of pieces to put together. Then we had to mount the antenna about twelve feet off the ground, so that the radials are well out of reach of anyone (if someone touched one of the radials during transmission they could get a nasty RF burn). By the time we were done assembling and erecting it, the top of the antenna was about forty feet above ground. Here’s a photo I took just before we attached the coaxial cable and tested the antenna; I was lying on the ground (those are two blades of grass you see in the foreground) looking up forty feet above me:

28 foot vertical antenna

The new antenna was much quieter than Ed’s other antenna; he quickly made a contact on the 20-meter band, an the other operator reported that Ed’s signal sounded good. And since that wasn’t enough time spent working on antennas, we went out to my car and tuned my roof-mounted 10-meter antenna for the FM-simplex calling frequency (29.600 MHz), something I had not been able to do before I left on this trip.

Yesterday Nancy asked, Didn’t I want to go out in Ed’s sailboat? No, I said, I’d help Ed with the antenna. Didn’t I want to go to the glass museum? Or go fishing? No, I couldn’t think of anything more fun than spending two days assembling and putting up an antenna. Nancy didn’t say it, so I will say it for her: Yes, I am a geek.

Morse code

Every so often, I set myself the challenge of trying to learn something to which I’ve had little or no exposure; or I might try to learn something I’m convinced I’m not good at. As both an educator and a human being, I find it’s useful to remind myself what it’s like to start learning something from a low level of competence.

My most recent challenge of this sort is Morse code. Some years ago, I started trying to get my amateur radio license, for which you then had to learn Morse code, and I found myself completely unable to do it. I was able to memorize most of the letters, but I never got to the point where I could actually copy Morse code. Part of my problem was that Morse code is heard, not seen, and I am a much weaker auditory learner than visual learner.

But this time, I decided, I’m going to do it: my goal is to learn Morse code well enough that I can copy it at better than five words per minute, with better than 90% accuracy. I bought an audio CD with Morse code instruction put out by the American Radio Relay League, and I found a free audio course online.

What you’re supposed to do is to spend 15-30 minutes twice a day listening to the Morse code recordings and writing down the characters you hear. On the first day, I tried listening to 30 minutes of Morse code, but I couldn’t concentrate that long; I found it surprisingly fatiguing. Nor has it gotten much easier; I’m two weeks into this project, and 15 minutes is still the most I can do. Nor can I yet force myself to listen to the Morse code recordings twice a day; once a day was as much as I wanted.

But ever so slowly it is getting easier. Today I managed to copy a whole sentence in Morse code. It was a short sentence — “Code is heard, not seen.” — but it was very satisfying to finally feel a small sense of competence.

What I’m going through is normal, of course. Whenever I’ve tried to learn something new, learning is painful at first, and it takes what seems to be a long time to get any easier. There aren’t many rewards at first, and those few rewards aren’t worth very much, so you have to exaggerate the importance of early victories to yourself. And you have to ignore the feeling that you are completely incompetent, and just forge ahead, willing to be foolish. I think it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself when you’re learning something new.

This, obviously, is the sort of thing children go through all the time. It also occurs to me that many of the people who come to our congregations having grown up with no exposure to organized religion go through this same sort of thing. And in a society where we are increasingly disengaged from communal activities, it’s really hard to learn how to get socially engaged and build social capital. It can be quite difficult to learn something completely new. It’s much easier to sit at home and stare at the computer screen or TV screen.

Update, two years later: I found myself completely incapable of learning Morse code. Similarly, I find it almost impossible to learn foreign languages. I do not seem to have a very good auditory memory.