When Allen was unemployed last summer, he hankered for a shortwave radio. It would engage his mind and fill his time while he looked for work. From salvage on his previous job he had some old radio tubes and was able to trade them for a vacuum tube Halicrafters receiver in mint condition. He set it under the eaves on a low table, made from a shutter someone had given us, across from my desk. Night after night I heard the strange squealings and squawkings, the rapid da dits; voices and languages invisibly thronging the air from over the vast worldscape. Otherwise, in the starry night out my window, I had thought the mighty culture of human beings asleep in the dark.
He borrowed some code cassettes and began practicing American Morse code in earnest. I too began: playing, rewinding and playing the tape machine, practicing to discern electric emanations of dots and dashes and what was signified by them. At first being confident of learning to receive and ultimately send the weird signals, I found that despite the body of discipline connected with writing I’ve little discipline in things less engaging to me. After two weeks I begrudged the time and dropped the pursuit. What little I learned soon fell through cracks in the neurons—gone.
But Allen is a different sort. He could determine what was encoded, transmitted, but had little hope of using the code to communicate on air: His radio was a receiver, not a transceiver—something he couldn’t afford. Yet, he learned and then relearned it all over again a year later when he was finally able to pursue the interest. Today he possesses more than code and license, that token of sanction from the FCC. Today he has a seven-year-old 1983 electronic Kenwood TS-830S, a good used transceiver. He has begun to transmit both signals and voice. But first he had to string his antenna.
Allen stopped at the local sporting goods store for an arrow, some bowstring and fishing line. He needed these things to hunt and gather signals out of the air. In the backyard is a white pine so high he cannot see the top of it while standing in the yard. Sunshine lights the trunk’s tall girthy sides with long patches of white. It is massive and bright, surrounded by boughs clean into heaven. (Very still is this treeful of life. Sometimes, when looking up into it, one gets that feeling: you may never again be able to claim you were ignorant of things hallowed.)
The bow is bent and strung. The arrow’s shaft is wrapped in identifying red tape—in case it lands in the woods among foliage. He takes a spool fishing line and attaches an end of it to the arrow. Upward is the path to the ionosphere where Allen will find his quarry.(Or, are you casting your weighted line into deep heaven? The signal is every bit of invisible. All you have is rumors of the direction in which to point your copper wire.)
His feet in work boots are planted, his grip firm on the bow. The feathered shaft is taut in the bowstring, and drawn. (You tilt your head, face the sky—hard clear blue. Maybe you feel the gaze of your wife, who stands by. She’s taking mental notes on the way you look with your curved bow: arrow pointed, fierce and ardent toward the sky.)
Nothing is now more engaging than this. He aims for the boughs, he lets fly.
The red-wrapped arrow goes. With a treetop so immense and remote, the arrow is in the sky. It arcs over a furry lower branch. It falls, bouncing lightly off a few boughs, to the ground.
(You had thought it would miss, go wildly through the heights and disappear in woods beyond. Instead, it lands in the yard a few feet away.)
He moves to gather the fishing line doubled over the bough, hanging down and blown in a slight breeze. The branch is firmly hooked. He attaches the copper wire to this line and pulls it into air. He walks down to the massive trunk of the pine and secures the fishing line to it with an eyebolt. The wire is now pointed toward invisible and unfamiliar stars, light years beyond the hard bright blue above us. All he needs is to attach the shining copper to a cable sticking from the house. It will route the quarry to his transceiver on its way to ground.
(You’ll be ready to get on the air, to climb upon signals or send out your voice.)
Allen came bounding downstairs into the kitchen, laughing. “I’m embarrassed. I was calling CQ on ‘phone. When I said the last two call letters … it came out sounding X-way Qwabec. Like Elmer Fudd would say it.”
Autumn approaches. It’s time for Allen to sit at the radio, hunkering down for a season before its glowing dials. Wichita Falls, Texas is calling CQ. CQ: the term used to call for a response. Our son, JD, says, “Sounds like ‘seek you’ to me.”
A strumming of crickets pulses outside the night window. WB5 whiskey foxtrot Juliet has a signal of five nine, on a mere twelve watts. Excellent reception: the nine for strength and five for readability.
Fremont, California; station KG6KC is driving around in daylight with a mobile unit in his car. He sends Allen voice signal out a 4-foot whip antenna—in one skip off the ionosphere.
“This one’s a copper wire strung into a pine tree,” returns Allen.
KG6KC is working as many stations as he can, saying, “73s,” and moving on. We hear him next on ‘phone to Australia; his four-foot whip and our pine tree wire are now receiving a voice emanating from under the vast turning world.
The next night. After three hours on ‘phone, Allen works the ten meter band in code. His blond head is clamped between headphones where he sits under the eaves, fingers pulsing on the key. Laughter erupts from him.
“What?” I call it from my place on the bed, book in hand.
He turns, removing the headphones. “I was trying to call CQ from Maine. It came out ‘CQ from Man.’”