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The Antenna Party
A short story by Don Keith N4KC
Copyright 2018 by Don Keith
Everybody says it so it must be true. The performance of a homebrew antenna is directly proportional to how rotten the weather is when it is installed.
That was one reason why we had high hopes for young Jack Oakley’s aerial that hot, summer day. Several of us had gathered early, while it was merely sweltering and not yet hellish hot, as it would be in a few hours. We came equipped with tools, rope, wire, insulators, a balun, feedline, a short section of coax, a slingshot and a fishing reel—all we needed to build a proper multi-band dipole antenna.
Jack met us at the door, excited, greeting us with a string of “Thank yous” as he shook each of our hands. He motioned for us to follow him through the small, dark house and out onto the patio behind. There, he had a tub waiting, filled with ice, sodas, and beer.
“Aw, Jack, you didn’t have to do that,” I told him, but that did not prevent us from reaching in and grabbing ourselves some cold drinks.
“You guys didn’t have to give up your Saturday to come do this, either. What can I do to help?”
“I think you just did,” Win McCullers, our ace-slingshot-shooter told him. As he sipped, he was already eyeing some high tree limbs on the tall elms that lined the back of Jack’s small lot. He took a swig of his soda and winked at the rest of us, then headed off toward the far corner of the yard.
“How high you reckon you can get it?” Jack asked.
“High as it needs to be,” I told him. “We’ll cut it for the low end of 80…you still want to do some CW down there, don’t you?...and if I know Win, he may hook one end of it to the moon and the other one to Mars.”
“Are you sure you have enough room?” Jack asked. “I don’t think my lot is big enough for…what?...a hundred and thirty-five feet?”
“We’ll make it work,” I told him. “Win is an expert at lot stretching. I once saw him fit a rhombic into a phone booth.”
Jack had an odd look on his face. I didn’t know if he was unfamiliar with the term “rhombic” or “phone booth.” Kids! Well, he was somewhere in his early twenties and that certainly made him a “kid” to me.
Meanwhile, Grady Harrison was unspooling the flexweave copper wire, taking one end toward the other side of the yard.
“You gonna stand there and tell lies or you gonna bring one end of the tape measure over here?” Grady asked, employing his usual gruff old grouch demeanor. “I don’t know for certain, but I suspect it will get hot here directly.”
I tapped Jack on the shoulder, told him thanks again for the drink, grabbed the 100-foot tape, and headed that way. Win was already about to launch a lead weight attached to s spool of fishing line, his slingshot aimed for a nice, horizontal limb about fifty feet from the ground. He had painted the weight a brilliant yellow, and I could easily follow its arc as it flew perfectly over the limb and disappeared behind the leaves on the other side.
“First time!” Win whooped. “Sometimes I amaze myself.”
“Even a blind pig finds an acorn…” Grady started but hushed immediately as he tied off the end of the antenna wire to a bush. “Here, give me the tape and see if you can remember your numbers long enough to take it yonder way sixty-seven-feet-six-inches.”
“You sure you have the strength to hold onto it, there, Grady?” I jibed. “I know how weak you old folks get if you miss your daily dose of Geritol.”
As soon as I marked the spot with a piece of electrical tape, Grady quickly wrapped his end of the antenna wire around a ceramic egg insulator.
“Measure it again, just to make sure,” he told me. “I’d hate to have to un-cut it if you get it too short.” But the wire was right on the money and I pulled a pair of wire cutters from my pocket and cut it a few inches past my mark. Grady handed me a commercially made center insulator, designed to keep strain off the ladder line that we planned to use for a feedline. While I attached the one leg of the antenna to the center insulator, Grady fussed.
“I can’t believe it. Time was, we would have made that insulator out of a chunk of Plexiglas or whatever we could find in the junk box instead of going out and buying a contraption like that,” he grumbled.
“Yeah, then you would get the opportunity to replace it with some other piece of jury-rigged junk the first time a bird lit on the thing.” I’d learned a long time ago that Grady Harrison loved to argue and complain almost as much as he loved cobbling together tube-type amplifiers and jawing with his buddies on the air. He was of the opinion that nothing good had happened in electronics and radio since 1952. And anybody unfortunate enough to not have been around or in the hobby of ham radio before that could not be a part of his fraternity.
Grady was a decent enough guy. His presence this blistering hot day to help a young ham who needed it was proof enough of that. But sometimes his curmudgeon act wore a bit thin. Especially as the temperature and humidity rose ever higher.
I felt a tug on the half-built antenna. Win was already tying a piece of strong, UV-resistant rope to the insulator, ready to draw that end over the tree limb when the time came.
“Reckon you can make another piece of wire exactly as long as this one without doing any damage?” Grady asked.
“I can get it close.”
“If we just wanted ‘close’ I could have left my tape measure at the house. You want a balanced antenna. That means both sides are the same length. Balanced.”
“Really? Grady, I don’t know what I would do without you?”
I caught a glimpse of Jack Oakley. He had moved his wheelchair a few feet to get into a patch of shade on the patio.
“You got the transceiver warmed up?” I called to him. “We’ll be working DX in a few minutes.”
“It’s all solid state. I didn’t think you had to warm those up.”
“Humph!" Grady said, just loud enough for only me to hear him. “Where do they get their licenses these days? Out of cornflake boxes?”
“Grady, that kid…” I started, but Win was there, torch in hand. He also had a bundle of coiled-up ladder line.
We made quick work of punching a hole in the middle of the line and attaching it to the center insulator with a nylon screw and nut, and then we wrapped each of the two feedline conductors around the opposing legs of the dipole. Being careful not to get the wires too hot or melt the insulator, Win soldered everything together, allowed it to cool, then pulled hard in every direction. We had good connections all around, but Grady insisted on pulling out his volt-ohm meter and checking continuity all the way to the far end of each leg of the aerial and to the end of the ladder line.
It was really getting hot as we watched Win step off the distance to a tree in the front corner of Jack’s lot. He then looked up and considered the various branches above him.
“Just enough,” he announced. “We won’t have to make this thing an ugly ‘Z’ after all.”
It took him several tries to get his fishing line and sinker over this limb since he had to avoid any chance of shooting it as far as a power line across the street or have his brightly colored weight go through the neighbor’s picture window. A group of neighborhood kids had gathered on the sidewalk, too, and he did not want to bean one of them.
There is no correlation that I know about between blood, concussions, and antenna performance.
“It’ll never fit,” Grady firmly announced. He had been eyeballing the distance between the two trees at the corners of Jack’s lot. “Ain’t far enough between them trees.”
“Grady, you are about the most optimistic fellow I think I have ever encountered,” I told him sarcastically. He really was beginning to irritate me.
Win simply winked at me, grinned, pulled his rope over the limb, and tied it snugly onto the other egg insulator.
“Go pull the other end up so the insulator is a couple of feet from the limb,” he told me. I did. Grady just stood there in the middle, shaking his head before he stomped off. The feedline, hooked to the center of the antenna, uncoiled as the insulator rose into the air. Then Win pulled the rope on his end. Sure enough, when we pulled the wire reasonably taut, he had about three feet between his insulator and the limb. The antenna just fit, as if those trees had been planted there just for that purpose.
“Lucky vegetation,” Win called it.
Grady was not paying any attention to us, though. Proven wrong, he was now on a stepladder, grumbling all the time, attaching a small, enclosed balun to the underside of an eave on the house, just above the window to Jack’s den. He checked a marking on the ladder line, cut it there, and hooked it to the balanced side of the balun. His grumbling grew even louder as he screwed the connector on the end of a short piece of coax to the other side and then stuck it beneath the screen, poked beneath the narrow opening where the window was barely raised, and fed it inside.
“Don’t tell anybody you just saw me doing this,” he said. “It would surely ruin my reputation. Baluns? Ladderline? Automatic antenna tuners? No wonder nobody can hear most of these guys on the bands these days, unless they’re runnin’ a California kilowatt.”
Win and I tried to ignore Grady’s grousing. He was still convinced every radio should have tubes and anything between the output of the radio and the feedpoint of the antenna—anything besides open wire feedline—was an atrocity. Anybody caught using such should have to turn his license back in to the FCC.
We quickly surveyed our work. The antenna was stretched from one convenient tree to another, high above the yard from one extreme corner to the opposite one. The ladder line fell straight down from its middle for forty feet or so before it stretched over to the balun Grady had reluctantly hung beneath the eave. We had tied off both end ropes for the time being and would come back and use opposing 8-penny nails as cleats to do a more permanent securing. We would install a spring on one end to take the tension if a strong wind decided to blow the two trees in opposite directions.
“All right, let’s see how she plays,” Win said.
Jack was already inside with the radio on. Grady followed with the toolbox and the volt-ohm meter. We stopped long enough to grab drinks and went inside. Win twisted the coax into the back of the automatic matching device on Jack’s desk, then made sure the other jumper led from the HF antenna connection on the transceiver to the input of the tuner and that all connectors were screwed on tightly.
“Ready to go, Jack,” Win announced. “See if she works.”
Jack pushed a button on a small box that rested on the desk in front of his radio.
“Three point eight three zero,” said a tinny, mechanical voice. Jack spun the dial on the rig and hit the button on the box again. “Three point five one five.”
He felt for the button on the front of the automatic tuner and punched. Relays chattered inside the device and the cross-needles on the dial swayed rhythmically up and down. Win and I looked at each other as the box rattled away for a good ten seconds, then it sent “di di dit” and waved the two needles in surrender.
The SWR was too high. The matching device could not tune it.
“Hmmm,” was all Win could manage.
“It’s all that computerized stuff and that dang balun,” Grady said from the back of the room. “Told you. I got some coils and a capacitor in my junk box and we could breadboard up a quick tuner that would match a butter knife.”
“And have as much loss as a ten-foot two-by-four and enough stray RF to cook supper, too,” Win told him, taking a long draw from his bottle of soda as he considered this development. “Besides, it might be a hassle for Jack to have to mess with a Rube Goldberg apparatus like that.”
I tried to ignore the look of disappointment on Jack’s face as I turned to address our official club curmudgeon.
“Grady, we got some other problem going on here and we’ll figure out what it is and get some fire in the wire for old Jack, here,” I told him, mostly for Jack’s benefit. What with the humidity and heat and the trouble with the antenna, Grady was really beginning to grate on my nerves. But I held my tongue.
“Most likely that store-bought balun. We could have left that out altogether if he didn’t have that rice box for a radio.”
Win was gazing out the window, studying the antenna, its center conductor high in the air, swaying just slightly in the breeze. The feedline came down perfectly to the terminals on the balun and the short run of coax fed—without being pinched beneath the window—to the tuner output.
“Let’s see,” Win said. “Let’s do this logically. We measured twice and cut once, right? And we checked continuity at the feed point, too?”
“I did,” Grady confirmed.
“And the feedline?”
“It’s okay…for that dang ladder line stuff, anyway.”
“No reason to suspect a problem with the balun, Grady. It was working fine last time I used it.”
“Jack’s been using his tuner on that little short loop of his and it has worked okay in places.”
“Tuner? That ain’t nothing but a bunch of micro-processors and relays!” Grady spat out “micro-processors” as if it was a dirty word.
Win was scratching his chin. So was I. There just was not much that could have gone wrong. The antenna was about as simple as they come. I was about to start wondering if maybe Grady was right about the balun or tuner being on the fritz.
“Did we check the coax?” Jack suddenly piped up. “That seems to be the only thing we haven’t looked at. I think the jumper from the rig to the tuner is okay. At least it was working last night when I used it.”
“Naw! Can’t be the other run of coax. I built that up myself last night,” Grady said.
“Did you check it after you put the connectors on it?” Win asked.
“I didn’t have to. I’ve been soldering coax connectors since ‘fifty-one. Ain’t never had one fail yet.”
“Just for giggles and grins, let me see your meter, Mr. Marconi,” Win said.
Grady shook his head as he handed the volt-ohm meter over to Win. I unscrewed the coax from the back of the auto-tuner and gave it to him. He touched one probe to the outside of the connector and the other to the center pin. The meter flew over to the right-hand peg.
“Shorted,” Win reported for Jack’s benefit. Grady and I could see it for ourselves. “Dead short.”
“It’s that dang balun. I told you. Something’s shorted inside that thing.”
“Okay, go take the other end loose, then,” Win told him, but Grady was already headed out the backdoor, anxious to show us the error of our ways. He climbed back up on the ladder and unscrewed the cable from the balun’s SO-239 connector.
Again, Win touched the two sides of the coax. The meter once more flew to the right. Win turned to me and grinned. We could hear Grady snorting through the window. He saw the glee on our faces.
“Let me guess,” Jack said. “It’s the coax that’s bad.”
“Yessir,” Win confirmed for him. “The Coax King out there either grabbed a bad piece of cable or shorted something when he put on one of the connectors. Most hams would have at least checked it once they got it built. Reckon we ought to make him turn in his license to the FCC?”
“No!” Jack said. “He didn’t…”
“Just kidding,” Win told him. “But it is kind of sweet to see him get his come-uppance once in a while.”
“Look, I have another jumper over there under the table,” Jack said. “It’s RG-8X. I was going to use it from the rig to the solid-state amp when I get it.”
“Don’t let the old man hear you say ‘solid state’ and ‘amp’ in the same sentence!” I told Jack. “He’ll have a stroke right there on your patio.” We both laughed.
We quickly handed one end of the new cable out to Grady and screwed the other onto the tuner. Again Jack touched the “Tune” button. Again the box chattered, but this time only a couple of quick clicks. The digital readout on the device said “1 : 1.” So did the tinny voice from the little box on the desk.
We looked on as Jack moved up the band and tried tuning up in several spots. The automatic tuner made quick work of it. Then he tried several other bands. Though it took longer to find a match in a couple of places, it still managed it just fine. We could also hear some very strong signals and occasional bursts of static.
Then, on the low end of 20 meters, a station on an island off the eastern coast of Africa was working a pileup. Jack used his sense of touch to flip the mode switch to CW and synch up and then split the VFOs.
“Reckon I ought to give him a try?” he asked.
“Why not?” Win and I told him in unison.
All the while, Grady sat in the back corner of the room, intently studying the short piece of coax as if he had never seen such a thing before. As if he could spot the short just by staring at it.
When the DX station paused to listen again, Jack sucked in a deep breath and sent his call with the old paddle he used. The station answered and quickly worked someone else.
Again, Jack sent his call letters. Nope. Another station.
“Oh, well. Maybe I’ll see how the antenna tunes up on 17.”
“Hey, don’t give up so easy,” I told him. “He’s got a good signal, and I’ll bet he isn’t running any more power or any better antenna than you are.”
He breathed deeply again and sent his callsign one more time.
Then Jack’s call letters, coming back from the other side of the world, followed with “599.”
For a moment, I thought Jack was so shocked that he would not even be able to respond. The young ham’s hand was shaking so badly he could hardly answer, but he managed his own “599 TU 73,” even with his trembling keying hand.
“TU 73,” came the response.
Jack Oakley’s dark glasses were slightly askew on his nose when he spun around in our direction, but the broad smile on his face told us all we needed to know.
“I got him! I got him!”
He quickly typed out the call letters and signal reports on his Braille keyboard. Then, he turned right back to the radio and began twisting the dial, eagerly searching for more signals, more worlds to conquer.
Meanwhile, Grady sat there watching the whole thing, a sheepish expression behind his full beard.
“Who’d he call? Did he copy him?”
“Grady, you really ought to learn CW sometime,” I told him.
“I learned it. I learned it enough to get my General Class license way back when. Ain’t touched a key since. Never seen a need. That stuff is old-fashioned.”
Win and I looked at each other and grinned. Meanwhile, Jack had pounced on an SM5 and was already exchanging signal reports.
As we headed outside, we grabbed yet another soda from the ice in the tub. We needed to secure the ends of that fine antenna before a thunderstorm blew up. Then we would help Jack locate the connection on the back of the tuner so he would be able to unscrew it and drop it outside for lightning protection.
A nice breeze had sprung up and somehow, it did not seem nearly as hot and humid as it had only a few moments before.
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 www.donkeith.com or www.n4kc.com for more info.