The fire in the shack of the university radio station burned low and conversation lagged. Every now and then someone yawned lustily. The hands of the old clock pointed to five minutes after two, yet half a dozen seniors lingered, for the fire was magnetic, the walk back to the dormitory and fraternity houses long; and the night was cold. Lazy, feathery flakes, beginning to drift down at midnight, had changed to a fine, peppery mist swirling in from the north, and the wind moaned down the chimney in icy cadences.
Jug Southgate got up and stretched.
"See you mugs in church," he grunted, looking around for his overcoat.
"Wait a minute. I will let you walk with me. Hey! Get your big feet off me!"
"Freshman, where are the earmuffs?"
"Right here, sir."
"Put them on at once. Anybody would think you had no modesty at all."
"Get up! Get up!"
Exiled in a shadowy corner, a group of freshman had been listening in respectful silence. Now they rose, after a discreet interval, and removing their sky blue caps from their hip pockets placed them carefully on the backs of their heads. Beside them stood a little fellow who was busily engaged in wrapping a rather frayed scarf around his small neck. Judging from his stature he could not have been much older than fourteen, and he looked very small and out of place beside them. The shadows from the fire treated mercifully the worn places on the elbows of the coat which was so obviously designed for a larger occupant; they shielded understandably the worn, cracked shoes with the scuffed toes.
Nobody knew much about him except that he lived up in town some where, and that every Saturday night he appeared at the shack, slipping quietly into a seat amid the shadows in the corner, and listened with rapt attention to every word that anyone uttered. He always stayed until the group of fellows broke up. Jim replied feebly and shyly to those who would talk to him, apparently embarassed at the attention. His face and hands were very thin and his eyes were very bright. He was a small outsider looking in on a gathering with which he could join only in spirit. College would never be for Jim.
The wind whined savagely. A flurry of snow beat a faint tattoo on the window.
"Ouch!" muttered Ivy. "Listen to that!"
Jug cast his gaze around as he pulled on his gloves. The staccato clatter of the keying relay in the adjoining room reminded him to caution Parkes about playing the end of the band too closely since the multivibrator was down for revamping. Turning back, his gaze rested for an instant on Jim stretching his hands out to give them a last warming. Something about the little fellow's appearance arrested Jug's attention. Maybe it was the tattered edge of that scarf around Jim's ears.
"What do you say over there, sport?"
Jim didn't notice.
"You over there by the fire! Got a way to get in?"
Jim looked up, and saw Jug looking at him. He straightened up quickly and thrust his hands into his coat pockets.
"Got a ride into town with somebody?"
"What are you going to do—walk?"
"Yes," answered Jim.
"Pretty long way, isn't it?"
"Not so much."
Jug embarrassed Jim a great deal, because Jug was the chief operator and wore sterling crossed bars of chain lightning on the shoulder of the navy blue jersey. There was no greater this side of Heaven, save perhaps the three comprising the transmitting staff.
Jug shoved his pipe into his mouth and turned the bowl down. He squinted up at the clock.
"Hold on, frosh!"
He pulled off his gloves and searched in his hip pocket, producing nothing but a handkerchief and a crumpled pack of cigarettes.
"Can't find 'em. Listen! You know where the Sigma House is? OK—you go over there and look around in the back. My iron ought to be there, but if it isn't, get any of them that will start. You know mine?"
"Look around in the front seat and find you a hairpin or something and short around the switch under the dash. You know?"
"And hurry up, frosh!"
Rather bewildered, Jim listened.
"I can get there all right," he said finally.
Jug grunted and sat down.
"Where do you live in town?"
"Er—down by the depot. The third house from the corner."
"Guess you know all the trains."
"I guess so. The freights make an awful lot of QRM when I'm trying to listen."
Jug stuffed his pipe slowly and extracted an ember from the hearth.
"You one of these amateurs, too?"
"Yes, that is—I mean, I have a station, but it's not much good, I guess."
A flicker of surprise crossed Jug's persistently sunburned countenance.
"Didn't know there was another station within fifty miles of here," he admitted. "What do you use? Never heard you."
"A 201-A," answered Jim.
The rectifiers down below howled faintly.
"Any DX?" asked Jug, quizzically, glancing at the little chap out of the corner of his eye.
"No, I—you see, I never worked anybody."
"What's the trouble?"
Jim stopped the nervous movements of his small hands and wiggled his thumb, just to see if it would wiggle.
"I don't know."
"Just don't come back, eh?"
"Call many of them?"
"Yes, I—well, I call a lot of fives and nines and fours."
"Sure you're in the band?"
"I cover up my receiver with a cracker box and then I can hear the transmitter. After I take off my receiving aerial," he added.
Jug looked at Jim for an instant, and then gazed again into the fire. There was a pause while Jim twisted his small, thin hands nervously.
"I know it's putting out," said Jim, faintly, "because I get a burn."
"Just don't come back."
The pity of it.
"Much of a burn?"
"Well, I can feel it on the back of my finger." Jim held up the radio frequency detector.
"How long have you been trying to raise them?"
"Since about May—I mean, April."
"Yes," answered Jim, after a pause.
Jug exhaled a cloud of smoke through his nose and regarded the fire. Some game, this! Nine months and never a break.
There was a dull rattle of contactors down below, followed by a volley of clicks in the adjoining room.
"What made that?"
"Sounds like he switched in the '7'—the forty-meter rig."
"You mean he's using another set, now?"
"Just the amplifier. Switched over the exciter from the 80-meter to the 40-meter amplifier."
"Sit down! Sit down! Make yourself comfortable. Guess it'll be about fifteen minutes, yet."
Jim slid cautiously into the nearest chair. Suddenly he turned and regarded Jug inquiringly.
"Would you mind—I mean, would it be all right if I looked in there?" he asked, pointing to the transmitter room.
"Sure! Go ahead. Help yourself. Wouldn't get too close, though, to the one nearest this side."
Jim opened the door cautiously and craned his small neck. He stood transfixed for long minutes.
"Gee!" he whispered.
"Look all right?" Jug asked, pulling his pipe apart and blowing through it with two short snorts.
"Gee!" said Jim again.
Five minutes passed with only the wind, the old clock, and the keying relay breaking the silence.
Jug looked at the swirl of smoke ascending the broad black throat of the chimney, and his thoughts travelled back to a day—so long ago, it seemed—when that UV-202, its plate glowing brightly, brought the antenna ammeter to life. As he recalled, the pointed moved over about a thirty-second of an inch, but at the time, it looked like a foot!
And then that red-letter day. He had just called CQ. It was just one of many scores of CQ's. There was nothing to distinguish it from all the others except that on this occasion 9EKY in St. Louis came back. The wild shout that brought the gardener, the chauffeur, and both maids breathless to the sanctum over the garage was not, as they feared, Mr. Edward Southgate III getting a mortal shock from his peculiar conglomeration of wires and sparkling Mason fruit jars, but merely the result of Mrs. Southgate's youngest son making contact number one with his trusty bottle!
Jug looked at Jim standing in the door. The frayed scarf. The worn old overcoat hanging awkwardly from his small body.
"Know the code pretty well?" Jug asked, rising slowly, and returning the tobacco pouch to his pocket.
"Can you copy pretty well?"
"Yes—well, I guess I can copy ten words a minute, I guess."
"Want to go upstairs?"
"Want to see the operating room?"
Jug led the way with Jim following at his heels. A series of coughs escaped Jim at the top of the flight, and alarm possessed him that he would disturb the operator. He tiptoed in behind Jug, his small face radiant with excited expectation.
"What say, Jug?"
"'Lo, Bohunk. How goes it?"
"Where you working now?"
"Using 7005. Don't worry, it's inside."
"Did you check it with the oven?"
"Yes, it's right on the line."
Jim was all eyes. He looked at the Single-Signal receiver, at the typewriter, at the 100-kc. secondary frequency standard, at the steel front control panel alongside the operating desk. The shiny brass handwheel on it. The meters. All the relays in the back. The lacing on the cable runs. Resistors standing upright in groups. Jim's excited inspection saw it all!
"Anything coming through?"
"Few. Good many VK's and ZLs. Heard J2GX a minute ago. May be pretty fair later on."
Jug rested his elbows on the operating table and said something to Collier Parkes. Jim didn't hear. Jim was busy. He was looking intently at a Kleinschmidt perforator partially disassembled, wondering what manner of thing it was.
Jug's voice dropped lower.
"No," said Collier, "I got one with K6BAZ in fifteen minutes. Plenty of time for that, though. You go ahead while I go out there and look up another pad of message blanks—or something," he added.
He disappeared, clattering down the stairs.
"Want to listen in?" Jug asked, motioning to the receiver.
Jim came over to the operating desk and looked at Jug, then looked at the receiver. A great fear came over him. It was too beautful to get close to; the baffling controls marked "R.F. Gain," "Selectivity," "A V C" "Voice–C W," and "Crystal Filter" were formidable. It was only to be looked upon from a distance.
Jug pulled the swivel chair up with his foot.
"Sit down. Sit down."
Jim let himself down slowly and looked around at the control panel. His elbow touched the shiny handwheel, and he hastily pulled it back, and then let it slide down again. This was real. It was not a dream.
Jug tripped one of the switches up with his thumb and motioned to the knob in the center.
"Turn that one."
Jim looked up at him inquiringly and touched the knob timidly. The shadow scale above it moved slightly. How easily it turned! Encouraged, he moved it a little more. A faint hiss which had begun to evidence itself in the dynamic speaker was at that instant ripped asunder by a kaleidoscope of crisp, bell-like signals which caused the moving coil of the loudspeaker to wiggle perceptibly. Jim looked at it quickly. The sound seemed to hit him in his stomach, like when the bass drum passed in a parade. Just listen! A procession of grunts, drones and crystal ringing notes shrilled slowly by.
"Slow! Slow! Back this way."
Jim turned the knob back. Gee! It turned so easily, just seemed to glide! Entranced, he watched the shadowy divisions and numbers slip across the sloping, ground-glass window. Was this real? His elbow slid back against the handwheel inquiringly. Yes, it was real, all right.
Slowly the dial moved back back toward the 7000-kc. end. The terrific honk of W6's tore through. A myriad of faint signals in between that a touch of Jug's finger on the gain transformed into ear-slitting intensity.
A faint, lisping note. Jug brought it up to a good level. It seemed to stand out on top of all the rest, miraculously. The lisp increased in intensity. It signed.
Jim's heart skipped a beat.
The dial crept back up the scale. A terrific shot of 100-cycle r.a.c. A fluttering rattle.
A hollow ringing crystal note with a peculiar wavering undertone.
"Get this one."
It was a long, slow CQ DX. It signed.
Jim's hands were trembling.
"KA1HR. Get it?"
Jim's trembling increased.
The signal faded in slowly, dying away into the background roar, returning.
Jim's heart was pounding so hard it shook him.
Thousands of miles of black, tumbling ocean intervened. Outside, the two great towers, outlined irregularly in white, rose up and up into the swirling snow; downstairs, the input reactors sang monotonously in the ghastly glow of the rectifiers. The filaments of the push-pull stage in the 7-mc. amplifier imparted a dull radiance to the polished edges of the neutralizing condenser discs. All were ready, waiting to hurl the dynamite.
"AR," grunted Jug, and with his thumb tripped a breaker closing switch at Jim's side. "OK! Go after him! Use the straight key over there!"
Little Jim was shaking noticeably. He reached hesitantly over the battery of Vibroplexes strewn before him and grasped the key knob. He felt paralyzed. An hour seemed to pass. Suddently the knob gave. Awkwardly he sent "KA" and stopped.
"What was his call again? Oh, yes—er . . ."
He began to call slowly and erratically. After a little he steadied a bit, but his heart was pounding so hard he couldn't control his arm. He was trembling as with a chill.
Downstairs, the pair of 204A's, no respectors of persons, fired skyward all the savage energy that 4400 volts could impart. At every closure of the relay, the burnished plates of the tank condenser paled fitfully in the semi-darkness.
"Give him a long buzz."
Jim heard, but couldn't obey. The strength was gone out of him. Suddenly he found himself signing. He signed twice. K.
"Boy, you sure must believe in this signal all right," grunted Jug, tripping the breaker release.
For an instant only the background roar. Then the wavering drone started up.
"Well, what do you say now?" muttered Jug, glancing quizzically at Jim.
He didn't answer for a moment. Two large drops deposited themselves suddenly upon the log.
A faint sob came from the little fellow.
"I worked somebody," whispered little Jim.
|By John C. Flippin, W4VT||From QST, April 1935, pages 26–29.|