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The Great Harvey Wells Caper Part 1

February 16th, 2019

It was April in New York City. I was on my way home from the regular weekly breakfast with the Queens County Bagel, Bowling and Spark Club.

These were the halcyon days of kid-dom on the cusp of adulthood. I had my General Class ticket now for about two years. Got my acceptance letter from college and it was six months before anybody would hear of Sputnik. Life was good.

As I walked home from the bus stop, I was thinking about getting on the air today and rolling up a few new states for my WAS. I needed South Dakota and my old buddy Ralph from the QCBB&SC said there were only three active hams in the whole state. I could see that South Dakota was going to be a real challenge.

I climbed the front steps two at a time, walked through the front door and headed directly for my basement ham shack. I am halfway down the hall when I hear my old man say, “Where are you going?”

Any kid who has reached the age of five, immediately recognizes the peril in that question. It’s not a question really, it more a combination of Red Alert, General Quarters and Take Cover simultaneously.

I turned around to see the old man advancing toward me. He was upset. I tried to think of anything I did or failed to do in the last twenty-four hours. I aced my Physics quiz, took out the trash last night, and didn’t leave any wet towels in the bathroom; check, check, check.

He was about two feet away when he stopped, thrust a letter in front of me and said, “What’s this?” His hand was shaking so much, I couldn’t read the envelope at first but it looked very important. Eventually, the oscillation decayed enough for me to see better. It was one of those business window envelopes with no stamp. The top right-hand corner of the envelope contained the words, U.S. Government Official Business!

The old man was really wound up; like a pressure cooker ready to explode. He’d lived his life avoiding entanglements with authority. He was 4-F for the draft in WWII, voted at least once in every election and was an associate member of the Police Benevolent Association. Any unexpected things that had to do with “Official Business” made him very nervous.

Desperately, I tried to think of something that would get him in such a lather. I had gotten my draft card six weeks ago. Maybe this was the dreaded, “Greetings from Uncle Sam” letter. Then I noticed the return address; Federal Communications Commission, Washington, DC.

I stopped breathing. The FCC! This was worse than getting drafted. Looking through the window of the envelope I could see the paper inside. A pink ticket!

The envelope was torn open. At the top of the page, I could see the words, Notice of Violation! He’d already read it and assumed the worst; a life sentence for me at Leavenworth. I was doomed!

Flight was the only response I had. I grabbed the letter and ran for the basement. I read and re-read the notice several times. Cold sweat was dripping off me.

The letter said that my signal had been observed operating at a frequency out of the band at such and such time and date. It demanded I explain what happened. That I take immediate steps to prevent this from happening in the future and that I report those steps to the FCC within 30 days. No wonder the old man was upset. Single handedly, I had brought the wrath of the entire federal government down on our home.

I pulled out my log and started flipping pages; hoping this was a mistake. Some other guy with a similar call sign, maybe. The time in the letter was around 2 AM. Was the FCC really awake that late?

I ran my thumb down the logbook pages slowly, hoping against hope. Yikes! There it was. At the alleged hour, I had been on the air. What could I do? “The old man was right, you’re going to Leavenworth “, said the voice in my head.

That night I’d logged several calls to DX stations who were calling CQ on the other side of the 20 meter band edge. The last entry in the log that night was a guy in VK-land that I had finally managed to work. I was so excited, I almost woke the old man out of a sound sleep to tell him. I must have strayed too close to the band edge!

Maybe I’ll just throw myself on the mercy of the court. “Your honor, I’m just a kid. I didn’t know I was committing a crime.” “I fell in with a bad crowd; they dared me to do it!”

In a panic, I called my old buddy Ralph on the land line. Ralph was a charter member of the QCBB&SC. He knew everything about ham radio. He had been a ham so long that he said Marconi was his Elmer.

After an eternity of rings, he answered. Without giving him a chance to say hello, I unloaded on Ralph in one single breath. When I finally finished, Ralph calmed me down and assured me that I was not going to Leavenworth. “Yeah kid (everyone was a kid to Ralph), I got my first pink ticket in ’36”, he said softly, as if someone were listening.

What a relief! My old buddy Ralph, the greatest Elmer of all time had gotten at least a couple pink tickets and he was still walking around a free man. There was a ray of hope for me!

I could swear he was grinning on the other side of the phone. The voice in my head said, “Yeah, they’ll probably confiscate all your radio gear instead.”

It was only two years earlier that I went to the FCC offices in Manhattan to take my General exam under the watchful eye of Lurch, the examiner. I still remember the big bullpen where the FCC guys worked. They were all dressed alike too; white shirts rolled up to the elbow, black ties and black pants. It was the official FCC uniform. I didn’t know what would be worse; just quietly going off to Leavenworth or having a squad of FCC men in black show up at my house in front of all the neighbors!

“Listen kid”, he began; his voice had a way of piercing through the QRM in my head. “You just need an accurate marker for the band edge. A crystal calibrator. You can pick one up at Harrison Radio for about ten bucks.”

I could hear Ralph take a deep breath. He’d been a chain smoker for twenty years, so his inhale had a signature wheeze, just like a good CW operator’s fist.

Then he continued, “The dial markings on your VFO ain’t worth the plastic they’re printed on kid. So, when you are chasing DX, don’t get any closer than three kc to the band edge marker, no matter what.”

“Hey Ralph”, I said “What about the letter I have to write? What should I say?” Ralph started in again, “Listen kid, just tell them the truth, you’ll be fine. See you later kid.” And then there was a click.

I sat for a long time; thinking. The U.S. phone band ended at 14200 KC. Most of the good DX was always just below that great divide. We worked split back then, running full carrier double sideband AM, pushing as close to the band edge as we dared, calling for that rare station we needed.

I wasn’t willing to give up a whole three kc of band, if I didn’t need to do it. Maybe I could just turn down the mike gain. Just listening to twenty meters some nights it was easy to see how everybody pushed the limit. Still, I was willing to do or say anything get back in the old man’s good graces and the FCC off my back! Finally, the beginnings of a diabolical plan began to form in my head. If I played my cards right, I would solve my FCC problem and then some.

To be continued

Reporting from the Dark Side,

Ron Litt, K5HM

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