The Receiver

#fiction #electronics #hacking #hamradio #shortwave #swl

The Receiver by Tom Filecco Copyright 2022 Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


The little brown box taunted him from its perch atop the old Hallicrafters at the antique store. He heard stories about them, the aether surfers, communicators from the outer regions who used archaic electromagnetic methods to reach one another outside normal channels. And sitting there right in front of him was a piece of their kit. He wondered what strange signals he might be able to receive from the Outlands, and if he could go all the way and actually participate with them. He pulled the two items off the shelf, brought them to the counter, asked if there was anything else like it in the store. The owner gave him a knowing look, went to a shelf, pulled a thick digest-sized tome from its perch, and handed it to him. ARRL Handbook it said on the cover. He took all three items. The Hallicrafters barely fit on his bike rack. He wrapped it carefully in a camouflage army poncho. The J-38 Key and ARRL Handbook went into his knapsack, another military relic, canvas, circa World War II. He mounted his old Schwin and went home.

His parents were Neo-Luddites, a reactionary movement started in the early 21st Century against the constant digitization and connectivity of humanity in “developed” countries. Some obscure niche writer created it. Their battle cry, if it could be called that, was one simple word: “analog.” They sought out implements and devices that were not equipped with microprocessors, and often preferred the mechanical to the electric. They had no Internet connection, instead preferring to browse used bookstores. Bookshelves lined the walls of their home. An old tube-style RCA TV graced the living room, thin flat black cable snaking out the back and up to the roof where an antenna was pointed at the local PBS station. His family's only concession to the digital world was a converter box that they had to buy when analog TV broadcasts were discontinued. If there wasn't a PBS station within reception range, the old TV would have likely became parts in his father's workshop. His father's library contained books on microprocessor design from the late 20th Century. They were artifacts from a previous career before finding religion. The boy thinks his new receiver will be a welcome addition to the home.

He gets off his bike, unwraps the poncho from around the radio, and walks in. His father is inside reading the newspaper. He notices the old Hallicrafters, smiles, and starts speaking.

“Your granddad was a ham radio operator. I got into computers instead, went to college, and worked for IBM. Let's haul that boatanchor inside your room, and get it set up. I think we can find the stuff for an antenna in the shed.”

Despite its age, the address in the book remained unchanged. Two or three weeks later, a thick manila envelope arrived from the Newington, Connecticut. He studied his old ARRL Handbook, and called the contact of his local ham radio club. They would be having a test in a month and a half. He hoped he would have enough time to study. Being home-schooled, his parents added electronics to his curriculum. Knowing full well that it also encompassed such topics as physics and mathematics. The old Hallicrafters was used to enhance his education in social studies and geography.

He arrived that Saturday morning ten minutes before the appointed time. The old gentleman in the safety orange jacket looked at his birth certificate and took his test fee. He sat down at the table among about a half-dozen other geeks, and was given his test. He looks at the test and confusion sets in as only a couple of the questions looked like they were from his book. He flagged the gentleman in the orange jacket over. “Sir,” he started, “None of these questions look like they're from my book.” He received a look of disbelief. “The questions are all from the test pool.” orange jacket replied. “What book were you studying?” The boy reaches into his backpack and pulls out the old ARRL Handbook. “You studied out of this?” The boy nods in the affirmative. The old-timer looks pensive for a moment. “Give me a minute.” After consulting with his fellow examiners, the old-timer returns with a nostalgic look on his face as he addresses the boy.

“That book is great for teaching you real ham radio, and building radios from scratch. It's also pretty much useless for helping you pass a ham test. Since my friends and I got our tickets from back when you studied that book to take the test, we're gonna make an exception for this time. We're gonna ask you a few questions, and if we like the answers, we're gonna make like you passed all three tests. Just do us a favor, don't tell anyone, and learn all the up to date rules so you don't get in trouble.”

An hour later, the boy walked out of the building with a certificate saying he passed all three Amateur Radio tests, and a more recent copy of the ARRL Handbook. The examiners would fondly recall this particular testing session for the rest of their lives.

There were probably some decided advantages to working with a text that dated back to the LBJ administration. Equipment was definitely more homebrew and DIY back then. Hobbyists were expected to build their own gear and maybe even some test equipment. With a well-written and authoritative text as a guide, there were no worries of self-appointed “experts” telling you that you were doing it wrong. Now the boy was ready to go build himself a transmitter.

Armed with a shopping list of pieces and parts, the boy walked into the old TV repair shop looking to build his first CW transmitter to go with the Hallicrafters. He thought it was amazing that such a place still existed in the age of planned obsolescence throw-away consumption devices, but there it was. He handed the owner his list. The owner looked at it, knitted his brows, and looked at the boy. “Nobody builds or fixes things any more.” the owner said. The boy replied “I do.” The owner led him to the back of the shop to a shelf of old tubes and TV parts. “See what you can find here.” the owner said. “I'll probably be closed for good in a month of two. You better take anything you think you might need. The cost for your parts is Ten Bucks, cash.” The owner gestured towards the back door of the shop. “There are some empty boxes over there if you need any.” The boy started searching through the shelves, filling boxes full of radio parts and tubes. He came across a radio in a yellow metal case, marked with a red, white, and blue “CD” logo and a badge bearing name Gonset. He asked the owner “How much for the radio?” The owner replied “That'll be another Ten Bucks.”

The boy walked out of the old TV shop with enough parts to build at least two shortwave transmitters, and with a radio that he could use for talking on the local nets. He knew some of the old time ham radio operators still used Gooney Boxes to talk among themselves at night. He had so much stuff he couldn’t fit it on his bike and needed to call his dad to pick him up. As it turned out, it only took him a year to go through his parts stash, and he quickly gained the status as the youngest ham in the county who home-brewed his station.