A QRP Christmas

by Jeff Davis, KE9V

Tis the Season.
I wrote the story, A QRP Christmas several years ago when I still held the call, N9AVG.

Since there are only a few days left until the fat man comes, I thought it appropriate to share the story with you again.

I hope you enjoy it and it’s my wish that you have a very Merry Christmas!

73 de Jeff

“A foot of new snow and it’s still falling, this is getting bad,” Tom muttered to no one in particular. Just then Stella walked in with a sad look on her face and Tom knew right away.
“The kids aren’t going to make it, are they?” he asked. “No,” she answered, “I just got off the phone with them and the roads are all closed.”

Great! Two days before Christmas, and the world had come to a halt.
Tom gave his wife a hug and said, “Well Mother, we might as well get over it, nothing much we can do now but wait this thing out.” In the 50 plus years since the couple bought the house they had weathered many winter storms, but this would be the first Christmas without the kids and, now, the grandchildren. Nature could be cruel, but at least they had plenty of food and firewood, and there was ample gas for the generator in case the power went off. “I think I’ll go see if the repeater is still on the air,” Tom said as he headed to his ham shack over the garage. Being a radio amateur had its advantages, and emergency communication was one of them. He fired up the VHF set, and–sure enough–the local repeater was alive and busy. Several folks in the community needed assistance, and snowmobile deliveries were being organized accompanied by hams to maintain communication.

As with many things, people take communication systems for granted until they’re suddenly unavailable. Two years earlier, with the proliferation of cellular telephone technology, Middletown decided it no longer needed Amateur Radio to assist during emergencies. A few months later, the river overflowed its banks during a massive rainstorm. Lightning wreaked havoc on the power grid and even cellular telephones were overloaded or knocked out altogether.
With one loud clap of thunder Amateur Radio was back in the disaster communications business in Middletown. The Town Council went so far as to give the Middletown Amateur Radio Club access to a county building to serve as a communications headquarters and monthly meeting spot.
Stella walked up the stairs to the radio shack with a hot cup of coffee for Tom. She figured he’d be spending quite a lot of time on the air during this snow emergency. She was wrong. Tom wasn’t all that fond of 2-meters, really. He’d always been a CW op. In fact, for years he never even owned a microphone for his HF gear. To him, ham radio was and would always be, CW.
His high school print shop teacher had convinced him to get his ham license in 1939. A few years later, Uncle Sam took note of his radiotelegraphy talents and made him a Navy radio operator aboard the USS Missouri. He served from 1941 until the end of the War and even was present aboard the Missouri for the formal Japanese surrender.

Not long after the War, he married his high school sweetheart, Stella, and started what would be a 40-year career at the telephone company. They had three children and still lived in the very house they’d bought brand new as a young couple in 1947.
Tom was a tinkerer, and he’d built several transmitters and even a few receivers. But he was a serious brasspounder and could handle 30 to 40 WPM with ease. His station was always as clean as his signal, and any piece of equipment he built was a work of art. It wasn’t good enough just to work and look good–it had to be perfect. Other members of the local radio club poked fun because Tom had a habit of making sure that even the screw slots on anything he built were aligned in the same direction.

He didn’t buy his first commercially made gear until 1961–a Hallicrafters SX-140 receiver with a matching HT-40 transmitter. That was the only store-bought equipment in his shack until over a decade later, when his best friend died suddenly. His friend’s widow gave Tom all the equipment in her husband’s shack, including a complete Collins S-Line. That gear took a special place in Tom’s heart and shack, not so much because it was the “ultimate station,” but because it had belonged to his closest friend.
After retiring in 1986, Tom quit building equipment. He maintained several skeds with on-air friends from around the world. Saturday nights were his favorite, for it was then that he met with a large number of old Navy radio ops on 7.030. He really enjoyed those rag chews! But, one-by-one, the gang started to dwindle as more and more of his buddies became Silent Keys. It depressed him so that when his main receiver quit working in 1993, he didn’t bother to fix it. K9NZQ was off the air for the first time since World War II.
Stella was worried enough about her husband’s depression that she told the kids about the problem. They chipped in and bought him a brand new 2-meter FM radio for his birthday thinking that would cheer him up. Tom listened to the local repeater every day, but he rarely transmitted. It just wasn’t the same.
She had hoped that having all the kids and grandchildren at the house again this Christmas would perk Tom up and chase away the lingering blues but now the weather had ruined that plan.
“I think I’ll go out and make sure the generator still starts,” he said as he passed through the kitchen. “The power lines are beginning to ice up.”
Once he was out the back door, Stella took the opportunity to quickly and carefully wrap her gift to him. One of his friends had suggested to her that she buy Tom a kit for Christmas. Taking his suggestion, she ordered a small QRP CW transceiver kit he’d recommended. She didn’t know if he would like it, but with this weather she was especially glad it had a arrived a few days earlier. Like it or not, at least he would have something to open on Christmas morning.

Day turned into evening and somehow the power stayed on. More snow was falling outside. The TV was calling it some sort of record snowfall for central Indiana. When Tom said he was going to bed and it was only 6:30 PM, she decided it was time.
“Let’s go ahead and open our presents now, and not wait two more days” she said, handing him the gaily wrapped box. He didn’t really want to open presents, now but he didn’t want to disappoint Stella, knowing that she was still upset about the kids.

“All right, let me go get yours first,” he agreed. In a few minutes they were opening their presents. She seemed to really like the bread making machine. He was more than a little surprised as he opened the little QRP kit.
“There now,” she allowed, “that will give you something to do for a few days and it will keep you out of my kitchen.” Tom knew he’d been underfoot lately. “You’re sending me to my room without pie?” he said with a smile.
“Go on with you. I’ll bring pie up to you as soon as the coffee quits brewing,” she said as he headed back to the shack with the little box in hand.
By the time she walked in the shack, pumpkin pie in one hand and hot coffee in the other, Tom had unpacked the box, sorted the parts and was halfway through the instructions. She was happy to see he at least looked interested and left the room with her fingers crossed that this might cheer him up.
He didn’t leave the shack until nearly midnight. By then, he had half of the components soldered to the main board, and he had wound several coils. “If the power doesn’t go out,” he muttered, “I could have this thing running by Christmas!”
The next morning he awoke at 7:30 AM, two hours later than usual. Stella already had the bacon frying when he walked into the kitchen. A quick look out the back window revealed yet another foot of fresh snow had fallen last night. He was glad to see blue sky and sunshine and hoped that meant the worst was over. After breakfast he was back in the shack, soldering pen in hand.
Tom was genuinely impressed with the little kit. The instructions were clear, and it looked to be of high-quality. He had already convinced himself, though, that he would never make a contact on 40 meters with less than 3 W. Nonetheless, he was happy to have something to keep his hands and mind busy. And it was a good thing that he’d kept up that dipole so he could see if this radio actually worked.

By 7 that evening, the kit was nearly finished. He was ready to apply power and begin initial testing. Stella knew that her decision to buy the little kit was a good one when he asked if she’d mind if he ate supper in the shack. By 11 PM Christmas Eve, the kit was finished. He plugged in the headphones, hooked up the antenna connection, and applied power.

The noise level jumped, and he knew things were working when he moved the VFO ever so slightly and instantly heard a QSO in progress. “Now, that’s a good sign,” he said to himself. He pulled off the headphones and headed upstairs to tell Stella the good news. But she was fast asleep. It was midnight. No point in waking her up now. He slipped back to the shack and put the headphones back on.
73 ES MERRY XMAS OM DE W5WBL he heard as one QSO completed. Tom moved a little higher in the band until he heard a strong station in QSO with a VE6 in Vancouver. He was more than a little impressed with the sensitivity of the receiver. After listening to a few more QSOs he continued moving up the band until suddenly, he heard a familiar call sign.
CQ CQ CQ de XE3HHH XE3HHH XE3HHH K. Tom almost couldn’t believe it. Here was his old friend Miguel in Mexico calling CQ. He listened as Miguel called several more times with no reply. Thinking it silly to even try, Tom grabbed an old straight key and plugged it in. It was the first time in years that he had even touched a key. “This will never work” he thought as he tapped out XE3HHH XE3HHH XE3HHH de K9NZQ K9NZQ HW CPI OM?
Tom’s jaw dropped when almost instantly Miguel came back. K9NZQ de XE3HHH FB OM I THOUGHT YOU DIED HI HI MERRY CHRISTMAS AMIGO. The two chatted for nearly an hour until Miguel had to go.
After the final 73, Tom sat back in his chair and rubbed his chin. He couldn’t help but smile when he thought of just how much fun this day had been. Building the little kit and actually working an old friend just seemed to make his day complete. He would have bet half his retirement pension that there was no way to work Miguel with less than 3 watts. He knew some guys who worked QRP regularly, but he had always assumed that actually making contacts was a pretty rough and risky business. At least he never thought it would be that easy.
He was about to shut down the rig and go to bed when he heard a loud CQ just off the frequency where he worked Miguel. It was KL7DD. Tom reached for the key figuring he’d get in another quick QSO–or at least make the attempt–then go to bed. KL7DD turned out to be Joe in Point Barrow, Alaska. Joe also was ex-Navy, so the two hit it off right away. What started off to be a “quick” contact turned into a two-hour QSO. Joe only had trouble hearing Tom a couple of times. The little QRP rig was holding its own and making a believer out of Tom in the process.
Four contacts later, Tom was exhausted. About the time he shut things down and headed for bed, Stella walked in. “Merry Christmas!” she exclaimed. “What time did you get up? I didn’t hear you get out of bed?”
Tom wasn’t sure how to tell her he had been up all night ‘playing radio’ so he just replied, “early.”
“Well, I’ve got breakfast ready,” she said as she walked back down the stairs. He was still thinking about the contacts he made last night when he sat down at the kitchen table. “You know Mother,” he said with a smile, “this might have been one of the very best Christmas’s we’ve had in a long, long time. After breakfast, let’s call the kids, but then I need to be back in the shack by noon because I told a guy that I would meet him on 40 meters to help him check out his new antenna…”

No doubt about it. K9NZQ was radio active once again.