island of misfit gear

treasure hunting at the local hamfest

de Bill K7WXW

In the corner of my furnace room are two Hammarlund HQ-160 receivers. I purchased the first when I was absolutely positively certain that I wanted a receiver like the one that I used when I was a kid. The second? Someone offered it to me when they heard I was rebuilding old gear and I thought, one to fix and one for spares. what could be better?

That was ten months ago.

Having a working HQ-160 on my station desk would be incredibly cool. I think that every single every time I have to move the rigs to get to something behind it. Unfortunately,  I am deep into a list of radio-related projects that matter to me more and will be for a long time. Both HQ-160s are destined for the island of misfit gear.

The island appears for one day, twice a year, in the main building of the Polk County Fairgrounds. People with stuff to sell rent tables, as do those that don’t have much to sell but want to get an early shot at buying from those that do. Setup begins at six, the main show at nine. The whole thing is usually done by one, though some tables are trading gear for cash until the closing bell.

Eighteen feet of table covered with crates of vacuum tubes. A scratch-built spectrum analyzer. WWII era test gear. Tangles of slightly beat up coax cable. VHF rigs from 80s. Motorola commercial HTs, antennas, batteries and chargers. Piles of random electronic components: variable capacitors, power transistors, RF chokes. There is probably a mile’s worth of folding tables here, filled with all sorts of electronic gear in conditions ranging from in-the-box-new to forty-years-in-a-root-cellar-old. While some folks are working the difference between ebay and local pricing, most of the stuff belongs to sellers that used, or had a plan to use, whatever it is they are selling. In a perfect world, their misfit gear  will become someone else’s favorite addition to the shack.

The spectrum analyzer in front of me, in a nineteen inch rack mount case, is a work of art. If you didn’t see the handmade labels, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was factory-built. Each major RF module is in its own metal enclosure, connected to others by precise lengths of coax. The circuit boards layouts are clean and tight. The design upon which it is based is well known among aficionados of homebrew as not-or-the-faint-hearted. The person that built this invested a lot of hours into it.  A non-shopping reason to go to swapfests: seeing stuff like this and talking to the hams who build it.

But if this is such a great piece of gear, why is it here? Turns out that the builder has a Siglent SA on his home bench and figures someone without the money for a new analyzer would find this one to be a good deal. I agree and for fifteen minutes ponder temptation. An hour after I decide no, someone else gets to yes.

Other stuff here is of little interest to anyone but the one ham looking for exactly whatever it is that happens to be on the table: old radio handbooks, random connectors, half-built kits, odd knobs, bits of antennas, and radio parts. My first trip to the island I acquired three coax switches that I needed for my new station setup. The second and third appeared from a box under the table when I asked if they had others like the one I was holding. I imagine a hundred people looked at that switch before I bought it.  I just happened to need exactly what it was.

Not everything on the island is of quite the same calibre as those switches. Much of it is not-so-gently used and obsolete equipment that only a very optimistic or knowledgable ham would consider. (Look in my truck after a ham fest; you might label me the optimistic type.) For example, I once bought a hundred turn vernier dial I found buried in a box of capacitors. It was a steal at six bucks, as long as you don’t put a price on the twenty hours I spent figuring out how to repair it.

Today I am standing in front of a nixie tube frequency counter. It could be a bargain but probably isn’t. There aren’t any manuals or schematics with it.  It is at least forty years old and the parts required to fix it may not be available for any amount of money. No one is really knows when it last worked. Hell, the seller is not even sure he can dig up the weird, irreplaceable power cord for it.

I smile and move away. from the table.  I don’t need a frequency counter. It is not on my shopping list. Nixie tubes! How can I pass up a chance to get a nixie tube frequency counter working again. No manuals or schematics. That’s what the internet is for! Obsolete parts. There must be a nixie tube email list somewhere! Too many other projects. I’m selling the HQ-160s so I have plenty of time for this! The guy behind the table finds the power cord.  I turn back, put down a twenty paired with a ten, and carry away my new adventure.

And so another piece of gear leaves the island…

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Cozy Cobblestone

A Quilter's Corner with Cindy Anderson

Some time ago Tierney over at Tierney Creates contacted me to ask about quilting another one of her projects. This would be the second time I would have the honor of working with her. I received her quilt called Cozy Cobblestone early in October.

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We traded information back and forth discussing thread color and stitch patterns. Tierney chose antique gold for her thread. For her stitch design she gave me permission to quilt as I saw fit. I get all excited when my customers set me free to decide. Being able to adjust my designs based upon the fabrics and quilt design is like saying I can have as much chocolate as I want. 🙂

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I had an awesome time working with Tierney’s Cozy Cobblestone. I used a variety of stitch patterns on her quilt. As you can see from the photos I incorporated both straight and curvy lines.

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Before…

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She Won’t Get Any Better

Those were the words spoken by a relative referencing my wife’s condition. A year ago last May she’d suffered two heart attacks and two seizures and our future seemed grim. I think he is a selfish, greedy man. I fear he let his wife go a few years earlier in order to collect a large insurance policy. So I wonder what he is suggesting; turn my back on my wife and give up on her?

My mind drifts back to Barb’s 27 days in a heart hospital. Her survival is touch and go, more so than I realize. Not until I hear her monitor sounding off like an aircraft stall-warning horn do I truly understand how close to death she actually is. “We still have other things we can do,”a nurse says to me as she quickly connects two smaller, brightly colored gas bottles to Barb’s machine. Nothing they do prevents her oxygen level from dropping. It’s now approaching 20%. I don’t know what percentage is acceptable, but I’m certain it should be higher.

I watch Barb while trying to stay out from under foot. Her lips move. Glancing at the nurses I notice they are all four leaning against the wall. Is there nothing more they can do? Are they waiting for her to die?

I move to her bedside and pull her oxygen mask away and ask what she said.

“I can’t take any more of this,” she whispers.

My medical knowledge includes the use of band-aids and administering cough syrup. Little else. However, my gut instinct tells me the words I chose during the next sixty seconds may determine Barb’s future. Putting her oxygen mask back in place, I bend over and whisper in her ear: “Please don’t go. I don’t want to home alone.”

Before the second hand on the wall clock has finished a full rotation her oxygen level moves. It increases. Did I cause that, Or would it have happened anyway, even if I’d been somewhere else? Within an hour the oxygen crisis seems less critical.

Twenty seven days later, fitted her doctor says I can take her home. “bear in mind,” he tells me in the hallway, “She’s been through a lot. Don’t be surprised if some mental issues surface.” Before she leaves her room, a nurse brings a box containing nine medications and an instruction sheet indicating what these meds are and when they are to be administered. The assigned hours are: 7AM, 9AM, NOON, 5PM, 8PM, and BEDTIME.

I’m overwhelmed, not at all certain I’m smart enough to keep my wife alive. But unlike my calloused relative, I don’t throw my hands in the air and leave Barb’s future to Lady Luck.

For several weeks I cook, wash dishes, wash clothes, and keep house, and see to most of her needs while she gazes out the sliding glass door. Eventually, she’s able focus better. We play slow games like Monopoly and Rummy.

I wonder about computer games. For years prior, she has played a Simms game on her iPad. Now she has no interest. None. Her stress level is low, so don’t press it. Instead, I wait and I watch and I hope – keeping the iPad battery charged. One day she asked if I know where she put her iPad.

Seventeen months have passed since she came home from the hospital. During this span of time her health has steadily improved. There have been issues, but she has taken over the domestic chores, but stress is still a constant snag caused by television and radio. Those are easily addressed.

This month she announces she is going to begin embroidering. A week later she’s ready to start a second pillowcase.

My relative becomes more like Scrooge McDuck with each passing year. He was wrong, saying: “She will never get better.”

1964 Hurricane

Our Rented House

The resent flurry of Atlantic hurricanes caused me to focus on my 1960s experiences. Of course, my recollections don’t nearly approach the damage Maria caused the island of Puerto Rico and her neighbors.

I think it was 1964 when a hurricane brushed across the southern part of the island, causing damage to the city of Ponce.

Barb and I were renting a concrete house near the village of Isabela while our landlord and his family lived behind us in a questionable house (causing me to recall the story of The Three Pigs) made of wood which he claimed his aunt had built sometime in the last quarter of the 19th Century.

Come stay with us so your family will be safe,” I suggested. “Thank you, but we will be find,” he replied.

Yet, sometime after midnight, while the wind shook everything that it could move, we awoke to a pounding at our door. He, his wife, and their three children were on our stoop and in dire need of shelter.

Unlike Marie, the hurricane left our electrical power and our other conveniences intact. Barb rolled out of bed to make sandwiches, coffee, and cookies for our wet visitors.

By dawn the storm had moved offshore and then stalled, churning in place, as it were. Noting this unsettling phenomenon, our “weather-guesser” assigned to our Ramey Air Force Base Television Station – a low-powered UHF station – assured us that we could forget the hurricane. “They can’t back up,” he stated. His advisory was still ringing in my ears when the storm began seesawing back and forth across Cuba – four times in all – causing Fidel to issue machetes to every able-bodied citizen in order to harvest the sugar cane before it rotted in the fields.

A few days later our bomb wing returned and life returned to a dull roar.

Once Again September Has Come and Gone

This year the trees answering their DNA memories are dropping their leaves in spite of an extra warm autumn. It’s time to give up what has been cherished all summer long. Some things are not so willingly released. The presence of our dog, Mr. Black, is one case in point.

He came to us from a Texas animal shelter as a $10 dog. And he stated low maintenance for more than a decade. We were honored to be his guardians for nearly 15 years. During that time he became a full-fledged member of our family with privileges given thereof.

The gleaming things on his color are bells. He rang them to gain our attention when the need arose.

Whatever It Took To Save Lives

From the Internet

Whatever It Took To Save Lives

My American Legion magazine arrived in my mailbox today. Though it covers many subjects the one that interested me most was the story of a Vietnam Nurse. She served in what was called MASH during Korea. Her story was not much different from a book I read many years ago. Even though her story impacted me, I I’ve long since forgotten the title. If you were to ask me, in a single sentence, what I took away from the book, it was that after Korea five years passed before she could eat beef.

I’m an air force veteran who served ten years active duty. No, I’m not a combat veteran. I don’t have any metals, ribbons, war stories, or battlefield injuries. I was an aircraft maintainer – airborne communications-navigation.

My first duty station after boot camp and then a year-long electronic education in avionics was Charleston AFB, South Carolina. My job was to maintain aircraft flying troops to and from Europe, Africa, South America, etc.. But about twice each week an air evacuation plane – a hospital flight – arrived from Germany with injured troops bound for Walter-Reed.

The aircraft commander always called ahead with his safety-of-flight problems and we were issued priority repair orders. Fix it as quickly as possible. Each patient had his own nurse and the atmosphere in the fuselage was absolute silence, with the exception of the sound of the ground power unit.

The aircraft I was most often assigned to was the C-121 – Super Connie – and some my equipment was located in the baggage area below the floor. A trapdoor gave access to this super-hot area beneath the floor we called the Hell Hole. Often I had to have the medic move a gurney wheel far enough to gain access.

What Time Is It?

home brewing zulu time

de Bill K7WXW

IMG_1399

Amateur radio operators are obsessed with time. Maybe, more accurately, knowing what time it is right now. Usually we want this information in two or more ways or in two or more places. We want to join a net that starts at a fixed time, schedule an on-the-air meeting with another ham or see if our signal will get from point a to point b. We are always calculating the time somewhere else or the time difference between here and there.

We address time zones, daylight savings time (a particularly American oddity) and the-number-of-hours-between-here-and-there by using zulu time, also known as universal time. Zulu time is the same everywhere on the planet. There aren’t adjustments for daylight savings time or Nepal’s fifteen minute shift or time zones. Sunday at 4:00z is Sunday at 4:00z for everyone, everywhere. That makes it handy, for example, when scheduling a time to meet someone on the air and it doesn’t matter whether she is zero or six time zones away. Zulu time makes such things a lot simpler.

There’s one issue… I live in local time. To convert zulu to my time, I have a handy chart. Okay, it works but it isn’t handy. I wanted something that required less effort.

Which is why I spent yesterday and today designing a dual display clock. I decided to homebrew one after a web search revealed that my choices for a commercial version were either expensive: four hundred dollars for a LED dual display clock? really? Or fairly expensive and looking like, well, a cheap travel alarm. Seeing my options, I immediately thought, i can do better than that.

Parsimony isn’t always why I choose build over buy though it’s true that spending sixty or seventy dollars is less fun than coming up with a homemade alternative. Being cheap and fun-oriented, I found a kit clock and spent a couple of hours developing a dual display clock that uses two of them: deciphering schematics, figuring out what to modify, writing a list of changes, making a bill of materials, and ordering parts.

Puzzling out how to build something, making it, and then using what I’ve made is addicting. Home brewing almost always involves picking up some new skill, learning how to use a different set of tools or figuring out how to re-purpose other people’s castoffs. It is also a great way to connect with other people and hone practical skills.

IMG_1386Skills like working plexiglass. About a month ago, a neighbor put out a bag full of plexiglass scraps. She thought trash and I thought, project boxes, lots and lots of project boxes. The fact that I hadn’t ever made anything with plexiglass? how hard can it be? An internet search, a few online videos, and a visit to the local plexiglass supply store (did you know there are stores that sell nothing but plexiglass and stuff for making plexiglass things? me either.) and I was cutting and drilling.

The stand I made has a rough edge but the clocks look pretty cool mounted on it. Seeing my mistakes, I looked for a better way to make accurate drilling templates and cleaner cuts. That’s another thing I like about home brewing: when you find ways to make things work better, you can do something about it. If I buy that seventy dollar alarm clock-looking thing, it is what it is. Not so with my home built gear.

The home brewing process is the same whether I am soldering transistors or drilling acrylic. I specify what I want: what is this thing I am building supposed to do? I look to see what I can learn from what others have already done. After that comes design: the why, what, and how. The design products — schematics, drawings, parts lists, and so on —  are the basis for what I do on the bench. The last step is a non-step: when I have everything I think I need, I let it sit for a bit before starting.

That pause is important. Some of the best upgrade ideas happen after the design is finished and before soldering or drilling begin. New concepts float to the surface, along with oh my, that won’t work, will it? insights. I learned this from experience and saw good home brewers verify it; whether they are building a complex receiver or a simple box, they use the pause to catch mistakes and make improvements.

My dual time clock is on the shelf above my rig, doing what it is supposed to do. My investment? Six hours of design and build time, including a run to the hardware store, and about fourteen bucks. Mission accomplished: I filed my chart. I learned how to work plexiglass and a little about making and using drilling templates. Best of all, my new clock doesn’t work quite as well as I would like, which gave me an idea for an arduino based version with an LCD display. I just have to learn C first…

The Coffee Shop

Brad lives alone in a Chicago studio apartment some fourteen blocks from his favorite haunt, Tony’s 105th Street Coffee House. Many folks call it a Starbucks look alike. Brad used to call them on it, reminding them that Tony Sabatto opened here fifty years before Starbucks came along. But no one listens. Its hopeless.

He and Tony discussed a Chicago coffee house many times while in  foxholes during the big war. Of course, Brad considered it a pipe dream. It was something fot Tony to cling to. That was okay. Talking about The Loop and The El seemed to make life a little more bearable. Sometimes he even forgot about his wet socks and K-rations in that cold, muddy foxhole.

Eventually, the war ended and Tony made good on his coffee dream, opening at a 105th Street address on New Year’s Day, 1946. Folks who had stayed on the homefront and dwelt with coffee rationing poured in the door.

Though coffee was free until eleven o’clock, few took, advantage of Tony’s generous offer. Some even paid double.

More than sixty years had passed since that day. Brad’s leg, the one that was wounded in Europe in 1942 is bothering him more these days and his trips to the 105th Street Coffee House are less frequent, reduced to weekly occasions or when he could manage the fare on the El.

This morning, however, Brad awoke with a start. He’d heard Tony call his name. He stared at the dark ceiling trying to separate fact from fiction, but he couldn’t. It seemed too real. The clock indicated it was almost straight up four. Tony would open at five. He must go check on his friend.

Dressing for the frigid Lake Michigan wind, he hurried down the three flights of stairs and flagged a cab. He was rapping on the front door in ten minutes.

“I was trying to send someone to fetch you. He’s on a cot in the back room, Brad,” said Tony’s daughter, pointing and then locking the door behind him.

Tony’s complexion was ashen. His breathing was shallow and rapid. But he managed a faint smile and then moved his lips. Brad leaned in close to listen and grabbed hold of his hand.

“We could have used a cup of this java back there in those foxholes, huh?” whispered Tony.

Before Brad could respond Tony was gone.

That Transmitter Could Have been Mine

From Internet

Not the same transmitter, but close.

Dave, was my father’s age, and a casual friend. We often met at the Braille Cafe for lunch. Dave was a Scotsman. He was forever telling me about the Scottish Clans and “slinging the haggis”. In time, the conversation always turned to radio, rehashing his experiences in the Army Signal Corps during World War II.

While we chatted another mutual friend, Pete, joined us. He, too, was a long-time ham, long enough to recall the government taking away the amateur radio bands during World War Two. And then the two of them urged me to earn my novice license.

The theory is okay, but Morse code is difficult for me,” I complained.

That’s what make Morse unique. It is difficult to learn. It’s not like someone overhearing a telephone conversation. Few understand the exchange.

Between the two of them, I caved. The following evening I dropped by Dave’s radio shack where he made a practice tape, dits and dahs at a very slow speed.

Two weeks later, the three of us gathered at Dave’s dinner table where they administered an ARRL approved test. An hour later, scoring with a passing grade on both theory and code, I was admitted to the ranks as an amateur radio operator. Of course, I enjoyed limited privileges – power output not to exceed 250 Watts, Morse only on portions of the 80-, 40-, 15-, and 10-meter bands. Actually, a very small segment of 10-meter allowed a novice to operate on single sideband. But I didn’t own a transmitter, so 10-meter or no, it made little difference to me.

Do you own a receiver?” asked Dave after we were finished.

Yes, I have a receiver.”

How about a transmitter?”

No, I don’t own a Transmitter.”

He said nothing more, but as I was leaving he followed me to the driveway and then asked me to wait. A few minutes later he reappeared pushing a hand truck bearing a transmitter the size of a foot locker.

This transmitter is from a World War II battleship and in its original condition. You will have to convert the input power over to 117 VAC. It’s still set for military frequencies. You will have to figure out how to make it work on the ham bands. It’s yours, if you want it. You’ll have to take the hand truck too. It’s heavy.

I turned him down. And now, after thirty years have passed, I realize the historical value of the transmitter Dave was offering me.

The realization came after my contact with a retired coast guard radio operator and reading experiences this man shared while he operated a powerful land based radio.

In one instance he received a distress call from a ship that was sinking. After learning his coordinates he put out a call for any ship that could come to the rescue. He found one that could be on the scene in four hours.

How long do we have?” the coast guardsmen asked.

Captain says two hours.”

There was nothing more could be done, so I stayed on frequency with him, chatting and taking personal message to family members and friends. I stayed with him until the radio room was flooded.”

I wondered if that transmitter resembled the one Dave offered me.

The only possible answer was to visit The USS Lexington which is open to the public at Corpus Christi,Texas. The Lexington manager responded to my email, informing me the radio room was not part of the tour.

Philip, the editor of K9YA Telegrah, a Chicago Radio Publication, authorised me to visit the USS Lexington on the Telegraph’s behalf. Their response was positive. They would provide an escort.

Three tall ladders stood between the hanger deck and the radio room. The only thing my escort knew about the radio room was where to find the door key and the light switch.

The room measured about eight by fourteen feet. Though the radios had long since been removed there was a panel in which about one hundred phone Jacks were mounted. Each jack was accompanied by a frequency. My escort couldn’t tell me the purpose, so I still don’t know if each jack provided a specific notch filter for that frequency, or what.

While there I searched for an exit. There was only one way out – the way I had come in. A sobering conclusion.

The radio operator is the last hope for a sinking ship. Is he obligated like the captain? I’m asking.

How I wish I’d taken Dave’s offer.