Hamming it up

Amateur radio operators - ''hams'' - don't have names. They have ''handles.'' I was never exposed to this hobby and knew little about it until in the 1940s I bought a war-surplus receiver - the kind used in tanks - which had four bands beyond the usual broadcast zone. I was fiddling the dials and found the ''Sea Gull Net.'' Here, a batch of down-east hams was having a regular afternoon gabfest, a cozy esoteric round robin that seemed to me to be far more entertaining than the uninspired programming of our broadcast stations. I became an SWL, which is jargon for a shortwave listener - I tuned in but without a transmitter I couldn't respond. I never entertained the slightest thought of going after a license. And as I listened betimes to the hams, there was one voice that boomed in best of all. ''The handle here is Russ,'' it would say, and it was a strong, resonant, warm voice that was obviously aided by a proper modulation - Russ was always 5-9. You see, I picked up some of the ham lingo, even to XYL. That's the ex-young-lady, or wife, and Russ said his XYL's handle was Ruby. I enjoyed listening to Russ in particular, and with his distinctive voice there was little need for him to repeat the required identification, ''W1 PTL, Bingham, Maine, over and out.''

Comes to mind a story about Russ and the hams that I would like to relate.

After I'd been listening to Russ for some time, my wife and I passed through Bingham, and stopped to introduce ourselves. We found Russ as affable as his radio personality promised, and we found his XYL a pretty and charming woman. After that we socialized some, perhaps getting together for a meal a couple of times a year, and as time ran along, Russ retired. He had been the engineer at the Quimby Veneer Mill, a plywood factory in Bingham. Bingham is away up-state on the Kennebec River and on the through route to Quebec City. Making plywood is quite a process. The hardwood logs are soaked in a ''hot-pond'' to render the fiber and the grain tractable, and then they are so-to-speak peeled on great lathes that shoot the unwound wood down the factory like a long sheet of paper. Glued together in crisscross lamination, pieces of this sheet become plywood, and the process uses special machinery that Russ, over the years, had made, changed, improved, fixed, and attended. Very good. So one summer Russ and Ruby made a vacation trek across the country, bent on visiting some of the national parks. Russ had a mobile rig, so W1PTL, mobile, of Bingham, Maine, stayed on the air en route.

These hams, riding along, talk to resident hams, and are often ''talked in.'' Saying he's five miles this side of such-and-such, he is told to watch for a red school and then turn right. Thus he comes to the home of the ham he is talking to. So a ham tours in this manner, and as Russ and Ruby moved west, some thousands of other hams knew where they were every minute. It's part of this story.

About the time Russ and Ruby were deciding that Chicago was for the birds, the Quimby mill back home closed down with a screeching halt. The huge hydraulic press that could clamp down on the glued sheets and make a carload of 4-by-8 plywood in one squooch developed a reluctance, and all at once the lathes had passed off a mill full of excess. Everything was all up in a heaval. Only one person knew anything about this press, and he was on vacation. What to do?

In the extremity, the mill management telephoned to Goodspeed & Barnes, engineering, in the Boston area, imploring aid, and a crew of experts was dispatched to Bingham. These experts looked the press over, waggled their heads, and said the only thing to do was take it to the shop. A flatbed was positioned, the press was loaded, and off it went to Boston. Russ and Ruby were now well along, and hoped tomorrow to be in Yellowstone.

At the shop, Goodspeed & Barnes, engineering, assembled the talent, and the talent shook its several heads. ''No other way, we've got to find Russ what's-his-name,'' said one of the talents. ''He made it, he can fix it.'' ''Who's he?'' asked Mr. Goodspeed, or perhaps it was Mr. Barnes.

''He's a ham, handle of Russ, so'm I, I've worked him.''

So out went a CQ, Russ left Ruby in Yellowstone and flew to Boston, he fixed the machine and flew back to Ruby. Goodspeed & Barnes had a tidy fee from Quimby , Russ had his share, and Quimby never knew that their own man fixed the press. Goes to show that ham radio is a fine hobby. Russ and XYL retired to Florida. Call him at WA4GRM and he'll deny everything.

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