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Columns / Short Stories
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Last Update: 05-15-2009
May 1957



There are few hams with any imagination about the hobby, who haven't occasionally wondered what it would be like to sit down at the receiver in some typical DX country, listen to the band, and then knock out a CQ or two. Perhaps just to have that unusual, to W stations, feeling of being a highly desirable contact, or maybe to get another slant on our poor old tired hobby. And I'm afraid that more than a few of us have felt just a little tired of the sport since the post-war flood of assembly line equipment and cheap KW-plus rigs in the hands of operators with plenty of signal but no technique, and little respect for, or knowledge of, the traditions and creative aspects of the hobby. But I digress. A couple of weeks ago I was in Amsterdam, Holland, poking about the city. gathering impressions, drinking coffee, and getting set to record my radio show on tape for WOR. Radio Netherlands, where I was to record, is located at Hilversum, a lovely town about 30 miles from Amsterdam. Holland is an interesting place for Americans to see because it just doesn't look the way we expect it to, and hence is full of surprises. Hilversum, for example, looks much as a respectable wealthy tree-lined mid-western American town might appear on the day the inhabitants were celebrating a Dutch Festival. The Radio Netherlands studios presently are located in a series of old Victorian mansions exactly the same as those old white and green houses that still stand everywhere in America as a sort of last remnant of the Booth Tarkington Period. They are planning a multi-million dollar radio and TV center which will, of course, kill the old mansions, but "progress" usually destroys beauty everywhere, even in Holland. I took the Commuter's Special, they have them there too, out of Central Station in Amsterdam, immersed in a crowd of Dutch business men and pink cheeked women shoppers rushing home from the city for dinner. By the way, the Dutch are enormously friendly people and really like Americans and are very curious about America. An American is easily spotted by the Dutch even before the American opens his mouth to speak. Our haircuts, complexions, e1othes, and almost everything about us gives us away. In some European countries, this is a disadvantage, but in Holland it is the opposite. All I've noted, they really like us, and enjoy the chance to show off the English that almost everyone there has learned in school. This means that even a short train ride in Holland is enjoyable because sooner or later someone Will speak and time passes quickly. After 45 minutes or so, the conductor called the Hilversum stop which turned out to be a station that matched almost exactly any suburban stop along Philadelphia's Main Line even to the slot machines loaded with Dutch Milk chocolate, the yellow naked light bulbs, and the slightly grimy window boxes. However, instead of a line of station wagons driven by suburban-type wives, there was the usual Dutch line of high-necked black bicycles, a few one-lung motorbikes, and a scattering of Lambretta's and Vespa's, waiting for the commuter crowd, both men and women, I might add. Sometimes it seems as though there are more bikes than people in Holland. 'The crowds skim along the streets like a silent flock of starlings. Elderly dignified matrons, distinguished bank officer-types, teen agers holding hands from bike to bike, bricklayers, everyone pedals. However, since I have been bikeless since the age of seventeen, and was loaded with tapes and other impedimentia, I took an Opel cab out to the studio site. We can't have everything. In the reception room I was met by a girl who looked startlingly similar to her fellow Duchwoman, Audrey Hepburn. As I've said, this is a great country. She offered me coffee, the Dutch brew a superb cup, and we sat on the leather chaise lounge to talk. We had arrived at the point where I was about to offer her a chance in American movies, when in came the engineer who was supposed to tape my show. I flushed slightly, straightened my tie and introduced myself to him. He was Jan Walraven, PA0PCA, a short slight blondish sort of bachelor with a sense of humor. I followed him up a winding staircase to studio 5, where we were to spend the next seven hours, more or less, recording my four hour show to be broadcast in New York the following Sunday evening. I was flying all over Europe with KLM and they had volunteered to fly my tapes back to the States from wherever they were done. In Holland, the Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), is a sort of national pride and joy hence their word is almost a command everywhere. On that account, Radio Netherlands, a state controlled radio setup, was anxious to bend over backward to help me. Before recording I nosed around the control room a bit looking over the equipment. Much the same as in a typical well-financed U.S. station, except for the brand names, Philips and Telefunken with some EMI stuff around. The only U.S. equipment I saw were a few old Presto tables. Hans told me that the U.S. material was too expensive there and, in many cases, just didn't come up to their broadcast standards. As an example of that, I found they used exclusively the 15 ips tape speed for all their work in contrast to the standard U.S. practice of 7-1/2 ips in most broadcast work. They were amazed when I wanted to cut at 7-1/2 since only home recorders use that speed in Holland. This caused a brief crisis as they had only one old tape recorder capable of cutting 7-1/2 and that hadn't been used for over two years. It was dusted off, greased, loaded up with tape, and we opened fire. It seemed as though that poor old recorder broke down every fifteen minutes at least. It was located in a recording room remote from the studio and every time the phone rang, there was someone named Leo on the line who would say "hold it , the damn thing's slipping again", in Dutch. This went on until 4 A.M. when the last minute was recorded and the tapes were wrapped for the plane ride home. Since Radio Netherlands is a 24 hour a day operation, 4 A.M. isn't an unusual hour to be doing radio shows for these boys, especially since they followed the Dutch custom of plenty of hot coffee, rich cream and great ham sandwiches all through the working time. They were fascinated by a free wheeling U.S. radio show done off the cuff and with considerable candor, because everything they do on their radio shows is strictly scripted, passed on by several bureaus, and is extremely bland with no opinions on anything whatsoever expressed. As I've said, Radio Netherlands is a state outfit, and as such, feels that they are not to do much other than straight news, music, and drama. They have no high flying Godfreys or Steve Aliens who can say pretty much as they please. Eminent literary or political figures occasionally give talks that, of course, express their opinions, but they have no TV or radio personalities who can do the same. In that respect, all state owned radio setups, including the BBC, arc similar. I had the opportunity to record in most of the operations over Europe, and found they were all impressed by the fact that I could speak as I fell about almost anything that came into my mind without the benefit of Script Approval Departments, which are standard in all the layouts I encountered. By the time we had left the building, it was about 4:15 A.M. and I had over two hours to kill before the first train back to Amsterdam. It is just as dull in a Dutch town at that hour as it is in a typical U.S. burg of the same size. Nothing but street lights glowing weakly through a light early morning fog. Jan was wide awake though and suggested we go to his place for a drink and maybe to work the rig a bit if any of the bands were open. We hopped in his ancient Prefect and took off for the shack. It was a top floor two room apartment in one of the old Victorian houses about ten minutes away from the studios. Jan said that he had looked for a place where he could put up a decent wire (or over two years, apartments are hard to get especially for bachelors. We had to tiptoe up the backstairs, which creaked mercilessly, in order to get \0 his rooms. II was exactly like a bachelor apartment back home, a few pictures of girls on the wall, slightly messy, books strewn all over a tiny desk, sloppily made bed. I had to keep telling myself, "look you're in Holland, this is not Manhattan", in order to keep some perspective. The minute I saw the rig though, I no longer had to keep this up. Jan poured out a couple of glasses of Dutch apricot brandy and began to show me his layout. For the first time in a decade at least, I. felt that here was what ham radio is all about. He had some of the most beautiful pieces of equipment I've ever seen and not a unit was factory made, including the receiver. The receiver was a lovely job to behold and as hot as a Ford in reverse going up Pike's Peak. Double conversion, xtal controlled oscillator, bandswitching from ten to 160 meters, and as quiet as a 75-A-4 on a moonlit winter night. We first briefly listened to forty and then swung down to twenty which sounded good. Incidentally, J an had worked on this receiver for the better part of two years, modifying, refining, rewiring, until it was really as stable and hot as anything I've ever played with including the above mentioned 75-A. He had even constructed the sheet metal cabinet from scratch as well as the band switching assembly and wound his own if's, all because components are expensive and comparatively rare in Holland. The Guilder goes only a third as far as a dollar, but is just as scarce for a Dutchman. His transmitter was the same as the receiver. Neat, completely bandswitching self-contained, AM CW on all bands, running the legal Dutch power limit of 150 watts. Extremely flexible and completely TVl'd. He really bad genuine reason to be proud of the station since it was truly his own creation and not something that could be picked up in ten minutes over the counter. In contrast to his apartment, the rig was neater than the proverbial pin. He asked me if I preferred phone or cw on twenty. I chose cw, sat down at the desk, knocked out a couple of V's on the old-fashioned bar-type railroad style key, and started to call CQ. I can't begin to describe the peculiar feeling of power that comes with signing a DX call on twenty. A giddy swirling in the bead, and a fairly justified suspicion that you are in a position to bestow great riches on the peasantry. I signed with a lovely stylized AR K and began to tune the band. Have you ever dreamed of dropping a dry fly on the surface of a virgin mountain stream loaded with trout that had been starved for a week? The band was alive and crawling with W's most of whom probably felt that they weren't getting out of their back yards, since many OX stations just don't work Ws. They are so plentiful on the bands that working a W is like fishing for sunfish in a lake loaded with small mouth bass. On my frequency, in the middle of the high end of 20, it seemed as though fifty or more California KW's had homed in and were droning away frantically calling PA0pCA until the frequency rang like a Chinese gong in an echo chamber. I tuned the receiver off the frequency and the hornet's nest and wandered toward the high end. As I did so, I could hear dribs and drabs of lesser W fry, the rockbound, hopelessly calling PA0PCA, even though they were 40 kc off freq and sounding like tiny spring peepers in a marsh dominated by bull frogs. For too long, I myself had hour after hour called big-time OX, with my puny 200 watts and W call, only to be ignored in favor of some joker running 2.S kw into a 16 element beam. The W2's, the most plentiful of W's, have it even rougher than the rest since most European DX men will, if they have to work a W. ignore the common W2 in search of the rarer W7 or W6, or anything for that mailer but a W2. For that reason, I finally chose a tiny W2 about 35 kc off frequency, who apparently was calling PA0PCA with the same hope of success that a 16 year old pimply-faced youth feels when mooning over the Image of Marilyn Monroe in the neighborhood movie house in Zanesville, Ohio. I waited patiently until his overlong call had ended, gave him a good report at least four S units higher than he deserved in order to make him the biggest man in the neighborhood, and stood by. When he came back, his fist was trembling, he flubbed his own call twice, forgot to give a report and asked three times for a QSL card. He was running 20 watts xtal controlled and it was obvious that he would have a hard time sleeping for a week after this contact. While he was stumbling on, I scooted back to the frequency in order to see how the big boys were taking this. Even though I was clearly in QSO, they were still booming away on my frequency calling PA0PCA, apparently in the hope of QRM'ing the W2 out of the picture. I began to see why many OX stations have little respect for Ws. The technique of many of the stations calling me that night seemed to consist mainly of QRM'ing whoever I was in contact with. My finest ham hour came in ignoring this crowd and giving a few of the small Cry the thrill of their lives. After several African contacts. some more W's, and a couple of CE's, we finally closed down for a spot of breakfast before I had to lake off for Amsterdam. A couple of slices of Edam cheese, bread and butter, and coffee, the usual Dutch morning meal. While we ate, Jan talked about his plans for further work on both his receiver and transmitter. He glowed. To him this equipment was something with real character and personality because he himself had molded it in such a basic way as few U.S. hams in the past fifteen years would care to attempt, or for that matter, could. I began to realize what an empty achievement it is to open the crate of a factory made rig or to hear DX on an assembly line receiver compared with the solid kick that Jan gets out of his lineup. It's true that most hobbies arc going that way. Ham radio is not alone in the decline of individual creativity. Model making of any sort today mostly consists of fitting plastic parts together in fifteen minutes or less. Picture are painted by the numbers. DX contacts are bought with dollars and not operating skill and techniques. I have to admit that I felt a little envy for what PA0PCA had done, and also for what he gets out of ham radio as a result of his own efforts. Sniffing in the undergrowth of 14 mc with my lovely new NC-300 for some reason isn't the same as it was before that two hour idyll in Hilversum, Holland.

Copyright: 1957 CQ Radio Amateurs Journal