As I travel up the road, I can see the antennas sticking up above the roofs of the nearby houses. I recognize antennas such as these. For a moment it takes me back to my childhood when my father had similar antennas on our house. I remember as he listened to radios that carried voices of people from all over the world. My father was an SWL, or short wave listener, on ham radios. The person I am about to visit is much more than a listener, and radios have been a part of his life since he was a boy.
I arrive at the North Danville home of Larry and Ann Filby, which they share with Trixie, their Pomeranian. There is an array of equipment in the yard– two towers, five beam antennas, two wire antennas, and several receiving antennas. Larry has been an amateur radio operator; also know as a“ham operator,” for 50 years. His call letters are K1LPS.
With all the technology we have today, such as cell phones, Blackberries, and videoconferencing, it feels like stepping back into another world to discuss ham radios. Sitting at Larry’s desk, I survey the environment of his“ham shack” basement– radios, antenna tuners, keyers, microphones, rotors, computer, co-axial cables, maps, award plaques, and QSL cards. It’s easy to appreciate his comment when he says,“Ham radios are an extremely complex hobby.”
Amateur radios have been around since the early 1900s. The radios are called amateur radios because they are not for profit. No one knows how they came to be called ham radios. The operators have a language all their own. CQ means“calling all long-distance stations;” XYL means“ex-young lady;” QSL means“confirmation;” QSB means“signal fading;” QSO means“contact,” and QRT means“stop transmitting and off the air.” The list goes on and on. It is a foreign language to those who do not know it.
There are three different modes of communication– voice, digital (teletype), and CW (Morse code). Larry learned Morse code before he joined the Navy. He was required to send 12 words a minute. Today, he is comfortable sending 30 words a minute. It used to be a requirement to learn Morse code in order to get a ham license. That changed in 2007 when the Federal Communications Commission decided that Morse code would no longer be a requirement for U.S. amateur radio licenses. Still, many ham operators enjoy sending messages by Morse code.
Larry was 10 years old when he first became fascinated with radios. He learned on his own and built his first radio. In October 1959, he passed his test to become a licensed ham radio operator. Since then he has added to his knowledge until today he has an Extra class license and is one of the most well-known amateur radio operators in northeastern Vermont. He believes there are 40-50 ham operators in this area and“out of those, there might be six or seven that have systems capable of world-wide communications on a routine basis.” Larry is one of those people.
Larry was an aviation electronics technician for 20 years in the Navy, working on radio communications, radar, and electronic equipment on airplanes. He was stationed in many locations– Florida, Iceland, England, Scotland, Spain, Italy, and Guam. His knowledge of radios in general increased with his training. He could not use his ham radio while overseas because they were banned in World War II from the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor until the end of the war. The U.S. government would not allow their use in case someone was passing information to the enemy by radio. Larry said,“I spent 20 years in the Navy, without ever serving aboard a ship of any kind.” In 1962, he was assigned to St. Johnsbury as a Navy recruiter. After his retirement from the Navy in 1975, he stayed in the northeastern part of Vermont.
Larry then worked for the Vermont Department of Public Safety for 24 years. He worked in electronics and communications and maintained radio equipment for the Vermont State Police, Fish and Wildlife, Corrections, Forests& Parks, and other state agencies. He was assigned to St. Johnsbury. He had a shop at the State Police barracks fixing radios. It also meant that some of his work was on Burke Mountain and Jay Peak as the State of Vermont maintained communications sites in those areas. There were 11 people in the State of Vermont at that time trained to do this particular work.
Larry related one of his most interesting stories.“I certainly had my share of adventures in 20 years with the military. But the Navy had nothing on the Radio Division for the State of Vermont for adventures. You haven’t had an adventure until you’ve muscled a snowmobile up an unbroken trail into a remote communications site, through two and three-foot snowdrifts with 65 pounds of test equipment, at one o’clock in the morning in mid-February. That didn’t happen every day, but often enough.”
When Larry went up Burke Mountain on a snowmobile in the middle of the night, he went alone. He would haul a snowmobile up to the mountain with him, get it off the trailer by himself, and then make the trip up the mountain on the Toll Road. At night, he said“It would be easy to make a wrong turn - like over a cliff.” He never met any wild animals during the night although sometimes when he had to go up during the day, he would see moose. It took 20 to 30 minutes to go up Burke Mountain by snowmobile in the middle of the night.
He said,“Places like Jay Peak could be much more interesting because it didn’t have a road. Sometimes we could get a ride up with the snowmaking crew. They usually finished about midnight so if you had to go after that, you had to go alone.” It makes one pause to reflect on how little we know about the people behind the scenes who keep our lives running and in order. The adventures up the mountains ended in 1999 when he retired.
After spending so many years working with radios as a profession, Larry still finds enjoyment in his free time in making contact with others around the world. With his Extra class license, he has the ability to broadcast on all bands. There are two other classes of licenses: Technician and General. Each class enables the user to work different meter bands. The Extra class license is the highest and Larry earned his in 1984.
Most ham operators use QSL cards. This card gives information such as the call letters and address of the operator. There are many variations of the QSL card - sometimes the operator’s base station is used as a background. Other times, the background is scenery relative to the area in which the operator lives. When ham operators make contact with other hams in different parts of the United States or in other countries, they exchange cards. Larry has over 20,000 QSL cards that he has collected since 1968. His rarest card is from Macquarie Island, located in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica. Other treasures include cards from King Hussein of Jordan, The Vatican, Pratas Island and Scarborough Reef (both located in the South China Sea), and Kure Atoll (located in the North Pacific Ocean).
Contests are a big part of Larry’s adventures with ham radio. Contacts can be made during the day or at night as time zones are different all over the world. He does not mind getting up in the middle of the night to make that one last contact he needs to win an award or to help someone else who may need Vermont as a contact. Vermont and Delaware are the two hardest states for others to contact. He has won several awards, some of which are WAS (worked all states of the United States), WAC (Worked All Continents), Triple Play (worked all 50 states on three different modes), DXCC (worked 100 countries), and WAZ (worked all zones). He is aiming to work all 338 countries in the world. They are not all“official” countries but Larry explains that they“have been designated as such for the purposes of the countries award.” Larry is nearing the end of that quest as he has now confirmed 324 countries. The last few will be the hardest. He is most proud of 5BDXCC (worked 100 countries on five bands). He is one of few people who have this award.
How does one receive credit for awards? QSL cards are mailed back and forth between contacts. If Larry is working toward a specific award, he keeps track of the QSL cards he receives. When he has all the cards relevant to a specific award, he sends them to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) to prove that the conditions for earning the award have been met. They in turn notify him if he has met the requirements.
In the age of the Internet, things have been simplified in that computers and electronic QSL cards are now used. Information can be transmitted to“Logbook of the World” located at ARRL headquarters in Connecticut enabling operators to upload logs and get an electronic verification. For some operators, it is exciting to see the varied and beautiful cards created by other operators. However, it can be quite costly to mail cards. For some, the electronic version is the easiest.
Hamfests are a way for ham operators to get together and socialize as well as trade, buy, and sell equipment. There is usually one held in Burlington in February. A hamfest is held twice a year in Deerfield, New Hampshire. Larry finds that it is a great way to meet some of the people he has spoken with over the radio.
Among his other achievements, Larry was featured on the cover of“QST Magazine” in March 1990 during a ham radio microwave operation on Jay Peak. Larry also wrote articles for“73 Magazine” (no longer in print) and for“RTTY Journal”.
Ham radios are not all about contests, though. Operators can apply to programs such as MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System). Larry has been a part of this program. If operators are approved, they receive special training and then can help in specific situations. In one instance, military personnel stationed in other countries can send messages to their families back home in the United States via ham operators. Once the message is received in the states, it is passed along to the ham operator closest to where the message needs to be delivered. The last operator then calls the family and gives them the message from their relative stationed overseas. A return message can also be sent. This program was especially useful before e-mail when families had to wait several weeks for letters to arrive. Ham radios are also immensely useful in the event of an emergency or crisis. When regular modes of communication no longer work, ham radios can be used with batteries or generators.
A love for radios in general has been a big part of Larry’s life, whether work related or as a hobby. He enjoys making contacts with other people in various parts of the world and likes the challenge of a contest. Larry says,“There’s always another challenge out there to meet. I hope to be in it for many years yet to come.”
For more information about amateur radios, go to: www.arrl.org