Reminiscing about my early days in ham radio, one of the things that really stands out is a gift my parents gave me 32 years ago — a Heathkit HW-8, an 80/40/20/15 meter QRP CW transceiver! It was an utter surprise to me; I never had the slightest inkling that it was coming. I was 12 years old and had never built anything like that before. How wonderfully mysterious all those parts looked as I pulled them out and set them on the dinner table!
Looking back on it now, I realize how patient my mother was to let me take over that table in the dining room. As I recall, I worked nonstop to build the little rig and its power supply. Ten days later, on January 3, 1980, it was finally ready. My dad took a look at it and said it was ready for the “smoke test.” You can imagine how I held my breath as we plugged it in and turned it on. I was waiting for something on the circuit board to go up in a puff of smoke! Nothing exploded, so I was ready to take it into the shack and hook it up to an antenna and straight key. “Ready” is an understatement — I was so excited to get that rig on the air I was nearly bursting at the seams!
I picked up the phone and called Dr. Bernard “Bernie” Northrup, KAØDKN, a friend of mine across town, to see if he would get on the air and give me a signal report. Dr. Northrup (later NØCIE, now a silent key) was a professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis and a fellow member at Fourth Baptist Church, Minneapolis. Not long before, he had gotten his license after hearing me talk incessantly about ham radio at church (I’m afraid back then I was more interested in ham radio than spiritual things.). Anyhow, I called him (around suppertime, I see by my log!) and he graciously agreed to get on the air.
And sure enough, my HW-8 worked! After a half hour with Dr. Northrup on 15 meters I was ready for my first “real” QSO, as I thought of it. Tuning around the band, I heard ZL4KI. My heart started thumping as I prepared to call him. Could he really hear me even though I was sending with no more power than that of a small flashlight? My hand was shaking as I tapped out ZL4KI ZL4KI ZL4KI DE NØART NØART NØART KN and waited, flushed with excitement. I could hardly believe it when I heard my callsign as he came back to me! To think that the signal from this little radio, built with my own hands, was being heard 8,700 miles away in Invercargill, New Zealand! Amazing!
Other radios have come and gone, but that trusty ol’ HW-8 is still with me. As a boy I brought it with me to church camp and set it up in the lodge, tapping out CW while the other boys played games. Once on a trip to Louisville, KY I set it up on the second floor of my grandparents’ house — with a TV-twin-lead dipole my father had built — and worked a station in Poland. When I moved into my first apartment as a newlywed, I set it up with that same dipole in my (below-grade!) apartment. On a couple of memorable, crisp, autumn days, I brought it to a local park with a thermos of hot cocoa, sat down on a carpet of pine needles, and thrilled to the sound of soft static and CW.
And last summer, when I just couldn’t wait until I got my shack set up at my new QTH, I set it up on the picnic table in my backyard with an OCF dipole tossed into the trees. Even though that antenna was so low its feedpoint rested on the picnic table, I still worked both coasts on 20m with my trusty ol’ Heathkit HW-8! What a great little rig. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for giving me such a great gift!