A little memoir piece that came out of someone asking me on Quora: “What was Amateur Radio like when you were first licensed?” and a little story kinda happened…

I was living in rural Pennsylvania, fortuitously in a slate roofed house high on a hill overlooking the tiny town we’d just moved to. I was in high school and shy, and ham radio seemed a cool way for a nerdy girl to get out there socially. The fact that it made me do so in Morse code was actually a motivator, because I was too shy for a microphone just yet. Two meters (handheld VHF radios) cured me of that a while later.

In a rural community, ham radio seemed more a concept than anything else. I think I fell across a CQ or QST magazine in my school library and found out what it was about from that. The kids in my school were too much about Farming and Football to know about it. Once I put it out there I was interested, my parents somehow connected with an older man who knew all the other hams in the area.

I was surprised there were so many in such a tiny town.

One of them was an Extra class who worked for the power company, and had the tallest telephone pole I’d ever seen planted in his yard by his house. He had a deep accent, perhaps Scandinavian or thereabouts (I can’t remember now), a handlebar mustache, a pristine radio setup, and was possibly the best Elmer a 16-year-old could ask for.

He and the original ham loaned me Morse code tapes and then drove me to a late night theory class in the city. It was great. They took me to my first Hamfest (a flea market for hams) where I found an old Heathkit rig, a vertical antenna I planted on a hill behind our shed, and a Morse code key.

By the time the license came in the mail, I was already copying code (practicing decoding a bunch of dits and dahs to letters on paper) from that for a while, before I finally got up the nerve to put out a call in slow Morse. I logged two contacts before my nervousness took over.

That weekend I went back to my Elmer’s and told him about it, and he said, “Let’s see!” And he fired up his rig and pointed the massive beam antenna on top to somewhere noisy. The next thing I knew I was tapping away at my first DX (long distance) contact, in New Zealand! About as far away as one can get on one planet!

My code was so slow that the Kiwi on the other end flicked a switch… I heard a hum, a piano playing in the background, and a lovely down-under accent, saying he couldn’t do Morse that slow, mind if we cross-mode chat? Turns out his son was practicing the piano in the background and his wife was clanking dishes in the sink. On the other side of the world! This was perhaps my best day ever in ham radio.

A few years later I moved from home for a job and joined a local club, which was pretty active and very family friendly. I wish I could find one like that now. I was barely 20, but far from the youngest there, since there were kids as young as 10 or so learning Morse code and having a ball. This club introduced me to Field Days, where we camped in tents out in the woods with generators, and long wires strung up in trees, and took shifts trying to log as many contacts as possible, drinking beer, or goofing off.

The club would also “band” together for antenna parties, where one ham with more money than sense would buy a used tower and a new monster beam antenna (a huge yard-sized “H”-shaped thing) and need help putting it all together.

I found out a scrawny girl didn’t have much to do at these gatherings, with all the men and their wrenches clanking and moving stuff–until they figured out I wasn’t afraid of heights (I actually love them). So when all the tower sections and beam parts were thoroughly wrenched together with lots of testosterone, I’d get to be the heroine of the day and climb to the top of a 200 foot tower and bolt the new thing in place.

I remember all of these middle-aged and elderly men staring up at me looking a little ill, or nervous for me, or perhaps a little embarrassed for not volunteering, while I shimmied up and waited for them to winch the monster to the top. I’d guide the thing in and tighten it up and watch while they tested the rotor (rotating motor–I love a portmanteau). I felt a little like a rock star for a little while.

After that, when the club was looking for a new place to install a repeater (a gizmo that “repeated” our handheld or mobile radios with more power and from a great height a much further distance), they knew who to call. I got to talk to people on simplex (person-to-person) from the top of a huge water tower, legally, just to see how far away I could get people on a little two meter handheld. Everyone on the ground was looking up at me like I was crazy, but it was fun!

I think I’ve bored you enough, but that’s what it was like back when I was a nerdlet. I realize the Internet and cell phones have done a hurting on the hobby since, but if I could find a ham radio club that was more into family fun than survivalist training in my area, I’d probably join them. It’s a shame they don’t realize they’re putting prospective young hams off by being so serious.

I’ve mentioned my weird happiness around heights before, but have I told you how high I’ve gotten so far? Oh, stop giggling, silly. I didn’t mean that way. I meant physically . . . though the euphoria of doing it was pretty mind-blowing.

I’m talking about flying. Not the unassisted flying I do so much in my dreams, but when you climb into a plane–in the front seat, with the wheel thingie and pedals–and fly yourself into the sky like a deranged penguin with an engine strapped to its back. Sure, I enjoy getting on a commercial flight and taking off to heights that made my little two-seat Cessna jealous, but to sit behind that windshield with your hands on the controls flying yourself into the sky . . . That’s the biggest self-inflicted wonder of all.

But this post isn’t really about me . . . it’s about my grandfather, a quietly amazing man I never really got to know. My grandfather was an engineer . . . an aerospace engineer. He was one of the many who helped create the very first space shuttle, or parts of it, working for Martin Marietta out in the desserts beyond the suburbs of Denver, Colorado.image

Perhaps it was no fluke that his engineering talents were directed toward that particular project. I wonder if he too was inflicted with this odd desire for altitude. Perhaps he even yearned to be one of the engineers aboard the shuttle when it finally left earth’s hold. I like to think he had. I kind of wish I’d had that opportunity myself.

I never knew my grandfather in his heyday. I hope one day my mother will regale me with her memories of him then. All I truly know about him was that he was happy off of the ground. And he loved to build things. Those two desires came together in his garage, where a cloth-winged airplane was taking shape by his hands. Perhaps this is where the seed was planted for me, seeing this project at such a young age.

A couple of decades later, I would embark on an adventure in flying that sadly began when his ended. It was such a poignant irony I found myself writing a little piece about it in my poetry class. It’s about the weird day I officially earned my wings after months of practicing to fly, first with an instructor and then on my own. It goes something like this:

               Last Flight
My grandfather’s home was the sky
His heart aloft from the ground
An imagination that helped
Launch our first shuttle to space

I remember purple-doped wings at eye level
Drying on sawhorses in his garage
But a fluttering heart stole their air
His license floating away in the wind

Unsmiling pictures of him, fettered to the ground
I ached to see him take wing again
Taking lessons as soon as I left the nest
But the ground took him too soon

The morning I earned my wings
I alit from my perch so early
Wing’ed faeries still flit about
Setting diamonds to the leaves

A stern stranger sat right seat with clipboard
Ready to catch any falling mistakes
Checklists and run-ups, then “Clear!”
Pointed questions as we taxied

Cessna’s were not designed for the ground
An empty coke can rattling on asphalt
But once the Earth drops beneath
An aluminum bird returns home

The climb brought my grandfather’s eyes
To unruffle my sputtering nerves
The clipboard man slipped behind a cloud
My purpose became clear blue sky

I’m a bird, climbing, rolling, stalling, diving
Seeing the airport reminded me of rented wings
Runways shaped like a crooked cross
The shorter piece tree-hemmed and disused

I faltered here when clipboard pulled a lever
My engine mock-failing before approach
I saw a sloppy circle to runway’s end
The shorter far too close beneath

My confidence veered, I froze in midairimage
Then … I imagined a hand touch my shoulder
I heard “Whoa!” from the right seat
As I banked, left wing pointed at the ground

Right pedal down, flying sideways
We side-slipped straight down,
Righting, flaring, touching like a feather
Before my hands were my own again

I felt my grandfather’s proud grin
In place of clipboard’s shocked stare
I taxi back to undeserved praise
Happy he got his last flight

One day I hope to take to the skies again. I know I’ll be thinking of my grandfather when I do. And thank him for helping to make it happen. Happy flying Pop-pop.