Jack was not impressed with the Secret Code Ring. And Jim sensed that winning Jack’s confidence would not be easy. He would have to try harder.
He knew fewer Morse characters than he’d thought. But Jack’s teaching method made it come easy. Theory, however, was difficult. There were frequencies and band plans he had to memorize, and some of the math was beyond his comprehension.
“Jim, you’re going to be ready for your novice test next week, and I have every reason to believe you’ll pass it with flying colors.”
“Absolutely. You’ve done well and I think the two of us should have a small celebration. Ask your mother if she would object to the two of us going to a donut shop Saturday morning before you begin your paper route.”
“She wouldn’t care,” said Jim, his eyes gleaming.
“Well, I don’t know that for sure. I don’t want to get us into trouble. You ask her anyway.”
That evening Jim stopped by on his way home from school for code practice. Before they began he said, “Mom wants to know which donut shop.”
“Tell her we’ll go to Nancy’s Bakery a few blocks from your house. I’ll pick you a half hour before you have to start your paper delivery.”
“I spoke with Jim’s mother at the book club meeting yesterday,” said Millie at breakfast. “She said that since this radio business started she seldom sees her son. If he’s not doing homework, he’s at school, on his paper route, or on the radio. “Do you suppose we’re becoming too involved?”
“I don’t think so. What would you do different?”
“We’re not strapped, you know. We could find a way to help financially so he wouldn’t have to deliver papers.”
Jack shook his head. “No. He needs the paper route.
“It’s not easy for his mother to make ends meet, you know.”
“I don’t suppose it is, but a polished apple is sweeter,” said Jack
Millie didn’t argue, but Jack could see that she wasn’t totally convinced.
That evening two radio operators arrived and administered Jim’s novice test. When it was finished, Jim had only to await the arrival of his license before he could start operating with his own call.
“Had you thought about how you could give back for the amateur radio privileges you now enjoy?”
“I don’t have anything to give.”
“Yes, you do. You have time. One evening each week you could give an hour to a traffic net, maybe even become a net control operator.”
Jim listened but made no comment, so Jack didn’t press the issue.
Saturday morning Jim was alone in the radio room when Millie called up the stairway announcing that she and Jack would be out for a time showing a rental house. They’d left him unsupervised several times before and everyone was comfortable with it, but she called up the stairway with a reminder, just the same: “If you decide to leave be sure to turn the power off and lock the front door behind you.”
The house was quiet and Jim began tuning across the novice portion of the 40-meter band when he came across someone sending a weak distress signal. SOS SOS SOS DE SALLY DEE SOS SOS SOS. Rotating his antenna, he determined that the signal was originating in the north, but he had no idea how far away. He brought the transmitter on frequency and adjusted the maximum power his novice license allowed. When the station paused Jim responded with his call, but after he stopped sending he discovered no one heard him. He’d watched Jack adjust the power. But doing so would exceed his power limitations. He knew that would be okay if he were the one in trouble, but he wasn’t sure if answering the distress call justified boosting his power. He decided to take a chance and increased his output another twenty watts. But it did no good. Then he remembered a list of telephone numbers taped to the side of the desk. He found a number for the Coast Guard and dialed it.
“United States Coast Guard,” said a voice over the phone
“Is this where I report a SOS signal?”
While Jim waited he could hear voices in the background and then footsteps.
“This is Ensign Bradley. Give me your name and the phone number from which you’re calling and then tell me about the signal.
After Jim reported what he knew, Ensign Bradley assured him that someone was already on frequency. When their conversation was concluded Jim turned his attention back to the radio and tried to copy the exchange, but the code was much too fast and he recognized only a few characters. Eventually, he shut the station down and went home.
“Hello,” said Jack, pressing the telephone receiver to his ear the following afternoon.
“Hi, this is Ensign Bradley of the United States Coast Guard. Is Jim Cornwell available?”
“No, I imagine he’s still in school. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Well, I thought he might like to know the outcome of yesterday’s episode.”
“What episode are you referring to?”
“The distress signal he reported to us yesterday. His prompt action may have saved the lives of three men in a disabled fishing boat off the coast of Alaska.”
“Let me get this straight. You’re talking about young Jim Cornwell, the amateur radio operator?”
“Yes, I am. The boat initiating the call had lost power and it was dead in the water. They were on battery power and who knows how long that might have lasted?”
“And Jim notified you folks?”
“That he did. You should be proud of your son?”
“Actually, he’s my paperboy.”
“Oh, well, however he fits in there, he did a superb job.”
“Would you mind calling again about a quarter after five and speaking to him personally? He’ll be here by then and I want him to hear this from you,” said Jack.
“I’ll be glad to do that.”
Jack headed into the kitchen and brought Millie up to date.
“Last week I mentioned that he should consider some sort of public service as payback for his privilege of using the bands. But he was reluctant, so I let it drop.”
“Maybe he’s a little overwhelmed and feels unqualified,” suggested Millie.
“That might be the case, but he certainly handled this situation like a pro.”
A knock at the door sounded and Millie went through the living room to let Jim in. He joined them at the table and Jack could see by his somber expression that something on his mind. Before Jim could speak the telephone rang.
“Hello,” said Jack. “Yes, he’s right here. It’s for you, Jim.”
“It’s the Coast Guard.”
Jim froze. Who had told them that he had violated the conditions of his license by exceeding his power limit, he wondered? Reluctantly, he took the phone.
While he was on the phone Jack and Millie went to their bedroom and fetched a door key. Then they moved to the living room and took a seat on the sofa. After a few minutes Jim appeared in the doorway.
“Yesterday, while you were both gone I heard a SOS on 40-meters,” he said. It was coming from a boat called the Sally Dee.”
“We heard. You did well.”
“Absolutely. You conducted yourself in the true spirit of amateur radio. We think you’ve earned the privileges that would ordinarily be extended only to a grandson,” Jack said, reaching into his shirt pocket. “Here’s the key to the front door. Anytime your mother says it’s okay, let yourself in whether we’re home or not.”
“Are you serious?”