On a clear, cool Friday afternoon several months ago, I led a small group of third-graders up to the ham radio room above the Admissions Office. We were going to try to make a contact. Radio PMFS, The Voice of Plymouth Meeting Friends School, was going to go on the air!
Jonah, Alexis, Dominique, Sarah, Sam, Grace, and James all scuttled up the steps and arranged themselves in a semicircle around the radio. Lights, dials, and knobs beckoned. Over to the side, an ancient Commodore 64 computer decoded Morse code conversations. With the sound turned off, letters appeared silently, one by one, across the screen.
To our right, another computer was running a GeoChron program. It is a clock in the form of a Mercator projection-style map of the world. The continents move across the screen from left to right—west to east—synchronized with the real-time movement of the Earth. Superimposed on the display is a shadowed area that indicates which part of the Earth is in daylight and which is in darkness at any given moment.
Everybody got settled. There were a few questions and comments, and then we began:
"Take a deep breath," I said. "Then, let it out slowly . . . and listen."
Amid the exhalations, I tuned the transceiver across the 20-meter band. In the background we heard the static and miscellaneous noise caused by lightning in Indonesia, or Peru, or Africa (or, coincidentally, by the largest solar flare that has ever been recorded).
The air bristled with possibilities.
Of course, I knew that this sort of suspense holds currency with third-graders for about 30 seconds tops. By then, something had better happen!
More static . . . more odd beeps and whistles . . . the kids were shifting restlessly.
"We’re going to have to call CQ," I said. "Does anybody remember how?"
Seven hands shot up.
The origin of this particular call comes from the early days of radio, when telegraphers would send the Morse letters "CQ" (I am seeking you) as a way of saying, "I’m here—does anyone want to talk to me?"
We talked about what we were going to do. Then, I checked to be sure that the transmitter was tuned up and ready. The kids watched the dials as needles jumped.
"Is the frequency in use? Is this frequency in use? This is KC3PX, a school station in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. We’re about to call CQ. Is this frequency occupied?"
When I released the button, all we heard was more static crashes and hissing.
"I think the frequency is clear," I said. "Who wants to go first?"
That was a loaded question of course. Amid the general jostling and the chorus of "I do!! I do!!" Sam raised his hand.
As he stepped up to the microphone, we reviewed the procedure. I again asked if the frequency was clear and then modeled:
"CQ . . . CQ . . . CQ . . . This is KC3PX . . . Kilo Charlie 3 Papa X-ray . . . calling CQ."
Then it was Sam’s turn.
"CQ . . . CQ . . . CQ."
He stood right up to the mic and spoke clearly and loudly—not shouting, but not holding back. He projected.
After Sam called, he released the push-to-talk button and the speaker hissed. Eight pairs of ears listened expectantly, but no voice answered.
One by one, all seven children stepped to the mic and repeated the process. After we had gone one round and gotten no response, I was about to announce that it looked as though we wouldn’t be getting one, but decided to ask instead:
"Does anyone want to try again?"
Grace raised her hand and smiled. She stepped up to the mic and when we were ready, she began:
"CQ . . . CQ . . . CQ."
One of the things I have always loved about this is the randomness of the potential response. Our signal circles the Earth at the speed of light. Anyone, anywhere on Earth might answer! On this particular Friday afternoon, when Grace released the button, a voice crackled into the room over the small speaker. It was Bob, WA1DXU/VO2, in Labrador.
I explained that we were a school station and that I had seven third-graders in the radio room with me. If he wouldn’t mind taking the time, I said, each of them would like to say hello to him.
Bob laughed and said he’d be delighted to take the time. So, one by one, Grace, Jonah, Alexis, Sarah, James, Sam, and Dominique stepped to the microphone and spoke.
"Hello Bob," Dominique said when it was her turn. She stared past the microphone and out the window.
"My name is Dominique . . . Delta, Oscar, Mike, India, November, India, Quebec, Uniform, Echo—Dominique—and I’m 9 years old. Over."
She heaved a sigh. Her name is a tough one to spell phonetically.
Sam smiled to himself.
One by one, Bob spoke to each child. He explained that he was a retired airline pilot. He said he knew where Plymouth Meeting was because he remembered the Roxborough antenna towers from his days flying into the Philadelphia Airport.
But now he was spending the winter in Labrador.
We found Labrador on the globe and then looked it up in the atlas that the Parent-Teacher Organization bought for us a few years ago.
Bob told us that he lived in a 16′ x 16′ log cabin that he had built himself. By coincidence, it was about the same size as the room in which we were sitting. He said that the wind outside was blowing 40 miles an hour and it was snowing heavily. In fact, it had snowed two feet that day!
The kids shot excited glances at each other. A snowstorm! Sounded like fun!
Bob laughed when he described the weather and added that he hadn’t seen the sun in three weeks! He also said that he spent the day outside on his snowmobile.
"That’s the way I get around up here," he announced, adding, "I’ve seen caribou and martens and polar bears today!"
I asked him where, exactly, his cabin was located. "What’s the nearest town?" I asked, so that we could pinpoint him on the map.
His answer surprised even me.
"I’m roughly 200 miles north and east of Labrador City. That’s the nearest town. My nearest neighbor is 60 miles from here."
He said it casually, but as he did, I looked around the room at the faces. I’m sure mine mirrored theirs. It was beginning to sink in. Bob was in the middle of nowhere! In a snowstorm! With polar bears outside!
Stranger still, he sounded happy!
Then, James came to the mic and asked the question that was on all of our minds:
"Why are you there?"
Bob chuckled as he answered in a sincere and enthusiastic voice, "Because I love the winter!"
Some of the kids nodded to each other as if they understood, some looked skeptical, some were incredulous. It was hard to imagine!
Alexis told Bob that we would like to send him one of our special postcards. (They’re called QSL cards—another abbreviation from the early days of short wave radio when all communication was in code. They are a physical confirmation of a radio contact.) Maybe, she asked, he could send us his card in return?
Bob responded with another bombshell: "There’s no mail up here. There aren’t any roads. There’s no phone, no TV, no electricity. This radio is all I have if I need to make contact with the outside world. It’s powered by a battery that I recharge with a generator driven by a lawnmower engine!"
Eyebrows raised all around the group.
Bob announced that, just then, he had his feet up by the wood stove. He was enjoying talking to us and when our conversation was over, he planned to take a nap.
We asked more questions. Bob told us that he comes to his cabin every year, in October, to winter over. He added that in Labrador, winter lasts almost nine months! In the summer, he lives in Windham, Maine.
Unfortunately, time was getting short. I needed to get the kids back to their classroom. Reluctantly, we wrapped up our conversation and bade Bob goodbye.
"73! 73!" (Another phrase left over from the days of Morse code.) The kids called out to Bob. "Goodbye!"
"73!" Bob laughed back to us. "Study hard. Have fun!"
And he was gone.
As we walked back across the campus, Alexis asked, "So what happens if Bob gets sick?"
We all thought of that.
"He has to take care of himself," answered Jonah.
That said it all.
Right now, I’m sitting at my desk. My house is a comfy 68° Fahrenheit. It happens to be snowing outside as I type. I can hear the cars as they make their way slowly down the hill. The lights are on in this room. The phone is next to me on my desk. My car is parked in the driveway. The tank is full.
I wonder what Bob is doing.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought of Bob on several occasions. Recently, when I sat in the returns/exchange area at IKEA, I thought of him. I was there with half a dozen other people as we waited our turn to be helped. I was holding ticket 97. A sign on the wall read, "Now Serving." Beneath it flashed a number in red lights, keeping us orderly in our queue. There would be no butting in line. We were all relieved of that.
"92 . . . 93 . . . 94 . . ."
The cell phone of the woman next to me went off, blaring the first bars of an electronically generated version of the 1812 Overture. She glanced at the caller ID, punched a button and answered curtly, "What?"
95 . . . 96 . . ."
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I imagined a man trudging to his cabin in the snow. It’s dusk. He’s wearing snowshoes. The only sound is the wind and the crunching of his footsteps. The cabin is dark, but he’ll soon light the oil lamp. He’ll shake the snow off his coat and remove his boots. He’ll stir up the wood stove and get it crackling. He’ll make his dinner.
Then, he might just put his feet up by the fire, turn on the radio, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and listen . . . for a small voice . . . calling.