Gift Sparks Memories for Ham Radio Operators
BVI recently gave weather radios to retirees who serve as BVI volunteers. The purpose was to show appreciation for the volunteers’ service.
But the gift also provided a pleasant trip down memory lane for some of the recipients.
That’s because the radios came equipped with a special feature that is not normally offered – shortwave radio.
This feature caught the eye of retirees Gary Ownsby and Lile Bickley, both of whom are ham radio operators.
Ownsby sent the following letter to BVI:
“I wanted to say thank you for the gift of the Kaito Voyager Radio. I brought it to the cabin with me yesterday for our extended stay in The Smokies.
“You may not know it but my interest in radio, electronics, and computers began when I was about 9 years of age with my Grandfather’s furniture-sized shortwave radio that he purchased right before World War II started. It was almost 20 years old when I was big enough to understand the dials and knobs but I listened to shortwave radio stations around the world.
“The Voice of America, Radio Moscow, Radio South Africa, Radio Canada, Radio Peking, Radio Havana Cuba, Radio Budapest, the BBC, and Radio Netherlands were my almost nightly companions in my bedroom which was a converted back porch at my Grandparents’ home next door to my parents. I had lots of room for radios, circuit boards, and antennas stretched from my bedroom window to the garage and my Grandfather’s two-story workshop.
“In that era, shortwave broadcasters transmitted what was known as an “interval marker” that was played a few minutes before their official broadcasts began. The interval marker could be a sequence of musical notes, repetitive music chords, or even a country’s national anthem. Its purpose was to give listeners a chance to warm up their tube type radios and tune the dial accurately so they could be ready when the broadcast began. Though it has been years since I did any serious shortwave listening, I can still hear the interval markers in my mind for each international shortwave broadcaster.
“As atmospheric conditions continuously change reception characteristics, shortwave broadcasters are always interested in how well their radio signals were being received so I would send them a reception report and they would often thank listeners by sending them packages of gifts throughout the year like calendars, books, pens, pencils, notepads and the like. Being a naive 10-year-old during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it never occurred to me that sending a radio reception report to Radio Havana Cuba might catch the attention of the Federal government but it did. One afternoon after school, there was a knock at my grandparents’ backdoor. My grandmother answered the door and called for me. It was two well-dressed men in suits…it was the FBI! They saw I was a kid and asked me several questions about my relationship with Cuba and left satisfied that I wasn’t a threat to national security.
“Interestingly enough, I remained on the mailing list of Radio Havana Cuba for over 20 years. They sent me the leather-bound, compiled speeches of Fidel Castro, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, fancy calendars, etc., and many things several times a year and every year. When I left home to come work in Chattanooga, my dad packaged it all away and kept it for me.
“Listening and tuning this radio with its shortwave features has been a trip down memory lane for me here at the cabin where radio interference is zero and shortwave comes booming in again just like it did with my long-wire antennas at my grandparents’ house. Coincidentally, I had already packed my ham radio gear and antennas to bring to the cabin this trip to install them here. So ham and shortwave radio all at one time and tuning the dial to listen to all those funny sounds and foreign-sounding voices from so far away brings a smile to my face and warms my heart.”
BVI shared Ownsby’s letter with retiree Lile Bickley, who also has an interest in ham radio. Lile replied:
“Yes indeed, that is right up my alley. It sounds like Gary is a ham radio operator like me. My ears perked up when he said he was putting a radio at his cabin in the Smokies.
“That’s what I do each year when I get to Fontana. I don’t watch TV much. I leave that to Cathryn. I sit over in the corner with the small radio I bring from home. It’s attached to the aerial wire I put in the trees with my ‘slingshot’ flip.
“The fact that Gary is a ham radio operator makes him ‘A-OK’ in my book. I know how he felt when the FBI came to his door to ask questions. Back in the 90’s I went on a mission trip to Jamaica. I wrote the Jamaican Government and requested a license to operate in their jurisdiction. I was granted the license, bundled up a small box of wire and a radio, and carried it with me, much as I do when I go to Fontana every year. That allowed me to listen to shortwave stations plus I could talk to my friends back in the States along with other hams all over the world. Just when I had gotten my radio aerial in the air at Montego Bay there was a knock on my door. It was the Jamaican authorities wanting to know what I was doing. I presented my license and offered to let them see my radio equipment. Five minutes later they were satisfied and I was relieved they didn’t shut me down.
“Anyway, way back in the 50’s and 60’s, as Gary explained, I did many things he described. I used to send foreign broadcast stations signal reports and they would send me back their station QSL card and a note of thanks for listening. I spent many a night listening to Radio Moscow, the BBC, and VOA. It brings the world to your own little room….and this was all before the days of computers, internet and social media.
Thanks for passing along the letter from Gary. Guys like us really appreciate BVI giving us such a wonderful gift.”
BVI appreciates our volunteers, and we are delighted that the weather radios sparked these memories.