The Amateur Radio Flea Market


A short story by Don Keith N4KC

Copyright 2018 by Don Keith

Jerry Lowe leaned back in his folding chair as far as he dared without tipping it over and stretched his aching back. It was almost 8:30 and most of the early “lookers” had already filed past his couple of folding tables piled high with various amateur radio treasures. The hamfest theoretically opened its doors at 8 but the early-birds seeking bargains had begun showing up in the boneyard well before 7, while Jerry was still pulling stuff from the trunk and rear seat of his car and strategically arranging each item on the tables. Some of the early guys would be back with lower offers later, he knew. Some he would likely accept, others he would just grin and nod “No!” He needed the room in his shack and shop, but he was not about to give anything away. Gas was $3.60 a gallon. It was true, too, that he needed cash in case he spotted something else he could not live without. This particular fest had a reputation for having good items in its flea market.

Finally, Jerry stood, yawned (the alarm clock had caused a lot of QRM at 4:30 that morning), stretched, and took advantage of the lull to survey the tailgaters lined up across from and to each side of him. He immediately recognized some of the stuff from previous hamfests and swap meets. Some still had the same hand-lettered signs Scotch-taped to their fronts with the same exorbitant prices. Others might have been familiar gear but they were on different tables this particular morning. Seemed like some of it got bought sold over and over. The old Kenwood transceiver with the meter hanging by its leads out of the front panel like a gouged-out eyeball. The dirty stack of old, rusty military surplus gear that was certainly worth more as scrap than anything else, but absolutely nowhere near the price the OM had on it. The twisted Mosley beam that appeared to have had a violent entanglement with a tree. The stacks of old QST and CQ magazines. The nicotine-enhanced Swan 350 with the bent corner on its case signifying a rough landing at some point in its long, long life.

But then something caught Jerry’s eye, a bit of gray front panel and the distinctive Collins logo. A 75-S3 receiver, right across from him. Jerry felt a tingle run up his spine. He stepped around his table and crossed the row to get a closer look, keeping a sideways view of his own table in case he got a shopper.

“How much you asking for that old Collins receiver?” he asked the man behind the table.

“$750.” The man wore a Collins logo belt buckle. Anyone with a Collins logo belt buckle surely knew how to handle the care and feeding of such a fine piece or gear. Unfortunately, he also was aware of its true value.

“What’s wrong with it?” Jerry asked. He did not mind a fixer-upper.

“Just like brand new. I re-capped it myself and used it on the air up until a couple of weeks ago. Never been around cigarette smoke, either. Works as good as the day Art Collins soldered it all together.”

Jerry twisted the knobs and tried to get a glimpse inside. The receiver was clean, all right. Knobs and switches were properly nimble and tight. Meter case and dial clear.

“Yeah, but how much would you take?”


Jerry scratched his chin.

“Why are you selling it, then?”

“I’ve been wanting another KWM-2 since I got rid of my last one,” Collins Belt Buckle answered. “I love them things but people keep offering me too much money for them and I can’t turn ‘em down. I got a KWM-2-sized hole on my shelf, just waiting.”

“OK, I have a couple of items on my table I’d have to sell first, but I’d give you $650 cash for it if I do.”

The man looked up and down the way to be sure nobody could hear their haggling.

“Tell you what,” the man replied in a half-whisper. “You bring me $650 cash, she’s yours. That’s how bad I want that KWM-2. And if you get her home and she doesn’t work the way I say she will, we’ll un-do the deal. Money back guarantee’s hard to beat.”

The two men shook hands and Jerry retreated to where he was set up, but he could not help gazing back at the receiver he coveted so much. It seemed to be uttering his call sign, calling his name. Carefully, he moved his immaculate Johnson Viking Ranger II transmitter and Hammarlund HQ-170 to a more prominent position on one of the tables and re-did a sign to say, “Complete vintage station: $800.” If he could get anywhere close to that price, that beautiful Collins would be his.

Not two minutes later, a tall, slender man wearing a “Know Code” tee shirt ambled by, stopped, came back, looked, and lovingly touched the big VFO knob on the Ranger.

“First radio I ever had, that Ranger,” he said quietly, as if reminiscing about a prom date. “I still do some AM with my new-fangled transceiver, but man, these babies sure sound good on AM. Always wanted me a Hammarlund, too. How much you take for them?”

“$800,” Jerry said, without hesitation. “If you’ve checked, they’re worth a couple hundred more. In great shape, too.”

The man moved the VFO knob so the pointer arced up and down the band, turned the receiver’s dial to match the frequency, and finally looked up. Jerry did not miss the hunger in Know Code’s eyes. He wanted this station for his very own.

“Tell you what,” the man finally said. “I got an Icom transceiver on my table up the way. If I sell that for what I need to get for it, I’d give you $700 for the pair.”

Jerry watched a flock of crows claim a hickory tree at the far end of the flea market. They cackled and cawed and haggled at each other as they jockeyed for the best perch.

“Okay, it’s a deal,” Jerry told Know Code. “But I can’t hold them for you or guarantee they’ll still be here at this price.”

“Understood, but the old Icom is priced to sell and I’ve had some tire-kickers already.”

Jerry watched the tall fellow hurry back up the way to a table behind a big pickup truck. Jerry yawned and then eased back into his chair, answered a few question from others who stopped by. A couple of them made silly, low-ball offers on the Ranger and HQ-170. He sold a plug and a cable or two, but for only a few dollars, not nearly enough to claim the Collins.

When he had a chance, he kept an eye on Know Code’s setup. He really needed the guy to move that Icom so they could do their own deal. Sure enough, in a few minutes, a fellow in a GigaParts baseball cap stopped at Know Code’s table. He spent several minutes turning the knobs on what appeared to be an older hybrid Icom transceiver on the other ham’s table. They talked, laughed, and talked some more. Finally, GigaParts Cap pointed down the row of tailgaters, gestured affirmatively, and shook Know Code’s hand.

Jerry nodded at the fellow as he passed his position but the man walked with a purpose, back to a big SUV with its rear gate up and its back end full of gear. He quickly moved a big linear amplifier from beneath a stack and to a more prominent location. He scrawled something on a sign before taping it to the amp’s front.

Jerry knew at once what was going on. GigaParts Cap had to sell the amp to buy Know Code’s transceiver. And that would enable Know Code to buy Jerry’s transmitter and receiver. And ultimately, Jerry could go over and take possession of the 75-S3. Collins Belt Buckle would have to locate his own KWM-2.

The newly uncovered amp down at GigaParts Cap’s setup immediately caught some interest from a guy in an Elecraft jacket. Jerry watched with interest as the two hams haggled, laughed, and haggled some more. By the time they shook hands—preceded by Elecraft Jacket pointing back toward the far end of the flea market to where he had his own flea market setup—the flock of crows had abandoned the hickory tree and were looking for worms and other tidbits in a big field at the far side of the building, beyond where the indoor hamfest activities were being held. The population of crows had grown considerably and so had their fussing.

Jerry sold a few five-dollar items and an HT with a bad battery—totally disclosed to its new owner, of course—but his attention stayed on Elecraft Jacket as he walked away from GigaParts Cap’s place. He followed him all the way to a truck at the very end of the tailgate section. It was piled high with tower sections, rotors, and various antennas and parts. Aluminum and steel sprouted everywhere. Even from that distance, and even with the distraction from the casual lookers at his tables, Jerry could see that he had put a new price on something in his truck, and that it had attracted some quick attention.

“I’ll give you $200 for the Viking Ranger,” someone offered, interrupting Jerry’s observations.

“I wouldn’t sell you the tubes out of it for that!” Jerry responded with a grin.

“How much, then, for just the transmitter?”

“I already have an offer for the set,” Jerry told him.

“Shoot, I got three HQ-170s already. I bring one more in, I’ll need a divorce lawyer. But I’d love to have the Ranger. How much?” The man pulled his billfold from his hip pocket and opened it. It was obese with twenties.

Jerry looked at the lovely Collins on the table across from him. It fairly gleamed in the early spring sunlight. And down the way, at the truck full of towers, Elecraft Jacket had shaken hands with a fellow in a University of Georgia sweat shirt, and that guy was already double-timing back to a table stacked high with VHF and UHF repeaters and base station antennas.

Things were getting more complicated but they were still stirring.

“Naw,” Jerry told him. He could already hear that fine audio spilling out the speaker from the 75-S3. “Come on back after lunch and if I still have it, we can talk.”

As the man reluctantly ambled away, Jerry glanced again at Georgia Sweatshirt. He was shifting around a particularly nice looking repeater so it could more easily be seen by passersby. In no time at all, a couple of guys wearing shirts embroidered with the local club’s logo walked up. Jerry had heard the club had been planning on adding a backup repeater for the .98 machine. With any luck, they had just decided on a purchase and it would keep this complex “circle of life” in motion.

There was a sudden ruckus over in the open field. Someone had apparently tossed a half-eaten hamfest hotdog that way and the crows were fluttering, squawking, fighting for the morsel. A couple of kids had joined in the fray, throwing out bits of popcorn, and that only contributed to the noise.

Meanwhile, Club Repeater Guys were already shaking hands with Georgia Sweatshirt, pointing back toward the table where the club had stacks of donated gear they were trying to sell to enhance the treasury. Obviously, they needed to move an item or two to be able to afford the backup repeater system.

Jerry tried to tune out the QRM from the flock of crows and looked toward the club’s table. Volunteers at a club table would not necessarily be as aggressive in moving items. This snag might derail the whole round-robin that had been so promising for all concerned up to this point.

However, somebody familiar was now standing over there at the club tables, blocking Jerry’s view as the man studied a particular item.

Wait. Wasn’t that Collins Belt Buckle, the owner of the 75-S3 Jerry desired so badly? The man shifted his position slightly and Jerry could see that he had been lovingly caressing what appeared to be a Collins KWM-2 transceiver. And he was telling the volunteer behind the table something, even as he pointed to where Jerry sat, watching, stretching, holding his ears to block out the screeching of the black birds in the nearby field.

That’s when Jerry realized what had to happen.

Collins Belt Buckle was already marching his way, a determined look on his face.

“You still want the receiver or not?” he asked loudly as he drew near, to be heard over the crows. “I just became a motivated seller.”

Jerry looked down the way, toward where Know Code had been trying to sell his Icom transceiver. Sure enough, Know Code was looking his way, as if he had figured out what was happening, too.

Jerry pointed toward Collins Belt Buckle and did an exaggerated questioning shrug of his shoulders. You still want the Ranger and Hammarlund?

Know Code gave him the “Wait!” sign with the palm of his hand. Jerry turned and, remarkably, GigaParts Cap was watching them both from the other direction. He gave Know Code a tentative thumbs-up, then the same “Wait!” signal, and turned to look even farther down the way, toward where Elecraft Jacket stood next to his stack of galvanized gravity-defiance sticks.

It took only a casual wave by GigaParts Cap to attract Elecraft Jacket’s attention there at his own table. He nodded animatedly and started jogging up the way to Georgia Sweatshirt’s table full of repeaters. The two men nodded and shook hands again and Georgia Sweatshirt trotted over to the club table.

The two Club Repeater Guys were just leaving the club table, bound for the snack bar inside. Thirty seconds later and they would have been gone. Georgia Sweatshirt flagged them down and pointed to each of the other hams’ setups and then, finally, to the club table, explaining to them what was going on. They all enjoyed a laugh.

Thankfully, the flock of crows had flown on, looking to scavenge and pore over morsels somewhere else. Time temporarily stood still as Jerry quickly considered the situation.

For anything to happen, one of the various cogs in this wheel would have to let go some dollars. That would start the chain reaction. But, once the big deal started, if even one of them balked on a pre-arranged deal, somebody in line—and maybe most of them—would be left holding the bag. Or a piece of gear, at any rate.

Jerry stood and walked over to Collins Belt Buckle, took out his wallet, and peeled off enough bills to complete the transaction. Thank goodness for that last-minute stop at the ATM that morning. He made sure everybody else involved saw that he was starting the snowball, right then and there.

He hauled the beautiful Collins receiver back over and placed it lovingly beneath a blanket in the back seat of his car. He was thrilled, not just at the price but at what appeared to be a fine piece of American craftsmanship that now belonged to him. He couldn’t wait to get it home, get it on the table in the shack, and hook up AC and an antenna.

When he turned around, Know Code stood there, money in hand, ready to consummate the deal. Jerry thanked him, put the cash in his newly-emptied wallet, and helped complete the transaction by carrying the heavy Ranger transmitter for the buyer. Meanwhile, Know Code hugged the big Hammarlund receiver close to his chest, a grin on his face, as they made their way up to his vehicle.

GigaParts Cap was already there, waiting for them. He helped them put the gear into Know Code’s truck and, as Jerry headed back to his own table, those two hams quickly settled up.

GigaParts Cap winked at Jerry as he double-timed back past him, proudly carrying the transceiver he had just purchased. He was on the way to where Elecraft Jacket was already standing at the SUV, lovingly studying the meters on the front of the big amp. Jerry watched as both of them lifted and carried the after-burner down to where the truck full of tower sections sat.

With the amp safely deposited in the truck’s crew-cab, both men helped Georgia Sweatshirt carry multiple tower sections back and lay them down on the asphalt next to his truck. They carefully avoided toting them too close to the precarious mountain of repeaters and antennas, circumventing a costly avalanche.

Club Repeater Guys joined to help in moving the last of the tower sections, and then they consummated the deal with Georgia Sweatshirt on the repeater and antenna, happily toting the pieces over to the club table. There, Collins Belt Buckle was carefully counting out the bills—some of them the very ones Jerry had given him only moments before for the 75S-3—and excitedly collecting his KWM-2.

The sun was now warm on Jerry’s face as he eased back down into the chair, and, after the early rise that morning and the drive over to the hamfest, he was on the verge of dozing off. He was starting to dream of the 75-S3 and how great it would accent his shack. He already had a manual and had printed out some mods he wanted to try.

Just then, someone walked up to his table, casting enough of a shadow to pull him back from the approaching dream.

“How much you asking for the FT-1000?” The man had a big “I DO YAESU” button on his hat.

“Tell you the truth, I don’t much want to sell it,” Jerry told him honestly. “I just don’t need it and brought it down to see what it might bring.”

Yaesu Button rubbed his chin and made an enticing offer, more than Jerry would have imagined.

“Well, sir, I’d sell it for that, I guess.”

Yaesu Button glanced down the length of the boneyard to where a young, blonde lady sat behind a heap of computers, telephones, and odds and ends of various ham gear.

“Tell you what,” the man said. “I need to sell a couple more particular items, and when I do, I’ll come back and grab this baby. If you still have it by then.”

Jerry thought for a moment. On the trip up to deliver the Ranger to Know Code, he had noticed a particularly nice looking Collins 32-S3 transmitter on somebody’s tailgate. He snuck a glance. Yep, it was still there.

A single crow had just settled into the top limbs of the hickory tree. The bird let out a screech eerily similar to some noises Jerry had heard in some DX pileups. Soon, he knew, the tree’s branches would be filled with its brethren.

“Okay, here’s the deal. I’ll be here ‘til about 2 o’clock...”

Don Keith N4KC has been a ham radio operator for more than fifty years. After a long career in broadcasting and advertising, he now writes full time and has published more than thirty books, fiction and non-fiction, on a wide range of subjects including amateur radio. See or for more info.