Category Archives: Elmering

Teaching and Learning Morse Code: The Personal Method

There are all sorts of ways to teach Morse Code. There’s the old Army way (check out these youtube clips: part 1, part 2). Then there’s the way the ARRL taught me back in 1978 — with cassette tapes. And today, students can download software that will teach them Morse Code with the Farnsworth Method and the Koch Method. It all works, so long as the student sticks with it.

How do you get a student to stick with it? First and foremost, by cultivating within him an affection for Morse Code. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery purportedly said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”1 But since so many things can thwart this affection (from discouragement to competing interests), sometimes you simply need to come alongside the student and encourage him. This is where cassette tapes and computer programs usually fall short. There’s nothing like The Personal Method — a real, live Elmer teaching you Morse Code.

Just ask my son! A few days ago I purchased a nifty Nye Viking Speed-X straight key and code practice oscillator to begin teaching him Morse Code. I hooked up my own Speed-X to it so that we could both key the oscillator — him on one side of the table with his new practice set, and me on the other side of the table with my own key. Thus equipped, we had our first lesson before bedtime Wednesday night.

I was surprised by how hard the bug bit him. At first he wasn’t so sure about the whole thing, but by the end of the lesson he was so excited he said he wouldn’t be able to get to sleep. He even told me that he wouldn’t enjoy his classical guitar lesson and horse-riding lesson quite as much the next day because he just wanted to have the next Morse Code lesson! The next morning, he woke me up by sending “GM” outside my door with this practice set. And later in the day, he started sending me code as went down the road, saying “dit” and “dah” like a true CW operator.

So to my fellow CW operators who know somebody that wants to learn Morse Code, I say let’s try The Personal Method. And to those of you who do want to learn Morse Code, try to find an Elmer who is willing to spend some time with you. If you can’t find one who can meet with you, hang in there with your cassette tapes or your computer program until you know enough code to work with an Elmer on the air. As the SKCC website says, “If you can only key at 3 words per minute, so be it.” There are SKCC Elmers who are eager to work with you ( You’ll be amazed at how quickly you build up your speed, and you’ll enjoy the experience a thousand times more than by trying to learn all by yourself.

1 This quote is all over the Internet, but I’ve yet to see any citation for it. If you know where Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote this, please let me know!


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Filed under CW, Elmering

Happy Birthday, NØARQ!

My friend, ACØVW, is planning on visiting me the day after Easter. He’s just re-licensed for the first time since he was a boy, and he is eager to get on the air. Trying to figure out what kind of temporary antenna we might be able to set up, I dug into a junk box and came up with a couple coils of old twin-lead that we could use to feed a doublet.

I could tell by the way the twin-lead was methodically coiled and taped with strapping tape that my dad had been the last one to handle it. As I uncoiled it and measured how long it was, my fingers were quickly coated in white, powdery residue from the aging, well-weathered insulation. Suddenly, I realized what I was holding. Surely this must be what my dad used to make the radials for my first antenna, a Butternut vertical that he set up for me on the roof back in 1978.

And just as suddenly, something else struck me. My dad was really my first Elmer. No, he wasn’t a seasoned ham radio operator when he started helping me. But he was a very seasoned electrical engineer — and a fabulous father. He may not have been able to help me out with operating procedures, but he sure did help me get on the air when I was a 10-year-old boy.

Take a close look at that picture of my first ham shack, up at the top of this blog. See those little squares of paper neatly taped to the front of the Heathkit DX-100 transmitter? My dad put those there. They were little notes to help me as I learned to tune that great big tube-fired rig. The laminated sheet of paper in front of the transmitter is, as I recall, a list of settings that my dad figured out for the antenna tuner. And that straight key — the very thing that first got me interested in ham radio when I stumbled across it in my dad’s shop — was lovingly screwed down to the desk by my dad, permanently marring the beautifully finished surface of the desk he had built years before this hobby became part of my life.

My dad went on to become licensed as NØARQ, and he homebrewed some great stuff. Some of it made its way into ham radio magazines, and a fabulous spider-quad he built back in the early 80’s went into an ARRL Antenna Compendium. I couldn’t have built any of those things back then (some of them I still couldn’t design if my life depended on it!). If it weren’t for my dad, I would never have gotten on the air. But because of my dad, I did — and enjoyed using some really fine gear, too.

Today is my dad’s birthday. I didn’t get to see him today, but the memories came flooding back when I held that old, powdery radial in my hands. Dad really was my first Elmer, and so much more. He led me to Jesus Christ when I was a young boy. Years later, when I was a freshman seminary student, he led me to a high view of God’s sovereignty. And to this day, he leads me by example to be a loving father and husband.

So thank you, Dad.

And happy birthday!

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Keeping Ham Radio in Its Proper Place

I have really been enjoying the whole exercise of planning my HF antenna installation. It is refreshing to stretch my mind in ways that it normally doesn’t get stretched. It’s not every day that a pastor does trigonometry! And the whole thing is like a puzzle that I am aching to solve. So many factors weigh in on the decision, like radiator-efficiency, radiation pattern, bandwidth, power-handling capability, structural strength, durability, aesthetics, and matters of space, budget, and time.

In a future post I’ll elaborate on the particulars of my own situation. I’d enjoy elaborating on those things now, but I have more enjoyable — and more important — things to do. You see, tomorrow is Sunday, and I must finish my preparations for worship.

And that is the point of this post. There are many more important things to do than ham radio. That is an important lesson to learn, and if I get a chance to Elmer a new ham I’ll do my best to teach it to him. We must keep ham radio in its proper place. It is only a means to an end — and a very small (and usually dispensable!) means, at that. The end is what matters.

If we could only remember that, it would change the way we operate. It would change the very way we have QSO’s.


Filed under Affections, Elmering, Priorities

Rediscovering Ham Radio

After years of infrequent use, my radios finally wound up in boxes when I moved from the Twin Cities out to Granite Falls, MN a couple years ago. But recently, I got the itch to set them up again. This time the itch started when I had to renew my license, about a month ago. Something about getting that renewed license in the mail brought back fond memories of soft static from my old Hammarlund HQ-170A, hearing CW while tuning up the Heathkit DX-100 for another evening in a world that few of my friends could understand.

Suddenly, I wanted to feel the straight key and the paddles moving under my fingertips again, with my finger on the dial of my Kenwood TS-430S. But until I got an antenna set up, that would have to wait — and there wouldn’t be any antenna-work until the snow melted. In the meantime, I’ve been savoring the process of preparation for that day. It’s been a treat mulling over  an antenna design while tracking down the boxes with my equipment in them.

While chafing at the wait I even bent to the task of studying for the Extra Class exam, and last week made the trip to the Twin Cities to take it. It all happened so fast that I’m still a bit astonished; it’s hard to believe that after all these years, I finally hold an Extra Class license. The first person I called was my father, NØARQ. If it weren’t for him, I probably would never have become a ham 33 years ago at the tender age of 10. I only wish I could have shared the news with my Elmer, Joe McDonald, WØIYT. I lost touch with him years ago, and now he’s a silent key.

But that brings me to the point of this blog. I want to do for some budding ham what Joe did for me. I want to be an Elmer, not only because I want to give something back, not only because I feel like I owe it to my fellow hams, not only because I fear that my beloved CW is dying out, but because I want to do everything I can to rescue ham radio from what it has become. That may sound a bit grandiose to some, and perhaps more than a bit quixotic to others, but there it is. Frankly, it is as much selfish as it is selfless.

You see, I don’t just want to rediscover ham radio. I want to rediscover the ham radio that once was, but is now hard to find. The only way that’s going to happen is if we have a significant culture change on the airwaves — and the only way I can think of to do that is to help one ham at a time. I want to do my best to start new hams in the right direction, to help them imagine ham radio for what it could be, not for what it is.

This blog will be about my journey to get back on the air, get my skills polished up, and find someone to Elmer. Along the way, I’ll reminisce about my own experience in ham radio, and I’ll critique the state of ham radio today. I’ll also venture an opinion on how we got here, and what it will take to improve the hobby.

Comments are welcome from all who deport themselves as ladies and gentlemen. May we converse here the way we ought to be having our QSO’s — charitably, humbly, thoughtfully, and constructively.




Filed under Elmering