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Copyright 2018 by Don Keith
Nobody really remembers when the group first started meeting, heating up the band with their conversation, jokes and carryings-on. A couple of guys began chatting most evenings just below 3900 on the 75-meter band. Others dropped by when they could—some of them long-time friends of the first stations, others total strangers who just joined in to give an opinion or ask a question or get a signal report—and over the years, hams came and went, but the roundtable mostly grew, regardless the status of the sunspots or what else was going on in the world.
The topics were all over the spectrum, though politics and religion were mostly avoided. So were medical conditions unless one of the members was having particularly threatening issues or had a funny story to tell about his gall bladder. Some went SK. Some went inactive. Others moved to other bands or modes, drifted back in every once in a while, or simply faded away.
But for years, the group still showed up most evenings, anywhere from just-after-supper to late, late, late. Weekends and holidays, the roundtable sometimes carried over into the wee hours of the next day. Some nights there were only a pair or three stations. Some nights there were a couple dozen. And stations checked in from Colorado to Florida, Canada to New Mexico. Summers were slowest with all the crunching of the QRN. Sometimes it was tough when the band "went long" in the winter evenings, but sometimes European stations or ops from the Caribbean or South America hopped aboard and contributed. No matter, the nightly roundtable carried on, an almost unstoppable force.
It was informal and friendly. If someone got out of line, he was gently chastised. Jammers and tuner-uppers occasionally did their thing but everyone learned early that if these disturbed individuals were totally ignored, they always moved on. Everyone understood that those guys did what they did for attention. When they got none, they went elsewhere.
Joe from St. Louis and Claude from Louisville were the informal heads of the group. They had good stations and their central locations were handy when the band went squirrelly. They were both natural storytellers, too, with senses of humor that seemed to make the transition from audio to RF and back to audio just fine.
But there really was no "net control." Anytime there were more than a few stations, the group dispensed with the formal rotation and just went to a conversational "speak up" format, like a group of friends gathered on somebody's deck, having a chat. Some nights, when everybody IDed at the same time, it sounded like an odd chorus singing a strange, discordant tune, with even the cricket chirps of a few CW identifiers mixed in.
The topic one particular night centered-as it often did-on antennas. Joe was talking about his latest addition to the antenna farm, a skywire horizontal loop, 260 feet of copper wire strung from tree to tree in his backyard. Someone had just asked him what kind of antenna seeds he had planted to grow such a monstrosity when a new and very tentative voice edged in amidst all the noise on the band.
"That's a great antenna, very quiet. Uh…hi, fellas. This is K4NSD."
"Well, good evening, K4NSD. 'Never Say Die!' Welcome in. I don't think we've had the pleasure before, and you know by coming into this group, you immediately bring doubt and suspicion about your sanity, right?"
"Thanks, Joe. Uh…well…I feel like I know all you guys. I've been lurking out here for a long time now and this is the first time I've piped up."
"Glad you came in," Claude chimed in. "What's the name and location?"
"It's Tommy. I'm in Nashville. The truth is, I'm a new ham. I just got my license a couple of months ago and you guys are my first contact on HF."
There was a burst of congratulations and welcomes and "what took you so long to key that mike?" from the assembled group of amateurs.
"Well, I had to build up my nerve, you know!" Tommy said. "Took me a while to get up an antenna, too, and I went with the skywire loop, mostly based on what I heard you guys talking about here every night."
"Well, Tommy, I hope we haven't led you astray in other areas!" one of the other members kidded. "If I had known you were lurking out there, I might've convinced you to do an extended double zep…"
And the antenna conversation went on.
From that evening on, K4NSD became a regular member of the group and was soon one of the favorites. For the first month or so, it was mostly questions, but then he was offering constructive advice on his own. It was clear he was studying, learning, growing in the hobby. He sometimes brought back stories of DX exploits on other bands, not bragging but sharing. Or word of how he had been of help on the Maritime Mobile Net on 20 meters or an anecdote of something that happened on one of the mobile-assist nets on 40. He was a good storyteller, a good listener as most good storytellers are, and was soon regarded as one of the roundtable's regulars.
Finally one night, curiosity got the best of one of the other regular nightly participants.
"Tommy, I don't remember you ever telling us what you do for a living," the op noted. "We're usually real nosy about such things, and you seem to have a lot more ham radio time than us guys out there working to pay Uncle Sam."
There was an abnormally long pause, a few bursts of static, a distant heterodyne somewhere up the band a ways.
"Aw, I work from home," Tommy finally answered. "I take lots of breaks and seems like the radio just draws me to it. Y'all can identify with that, I betcha. This ham radio is addictive! By the way, I've been thinking about a vertical for 40 meters and I was wondering your thoughts on radials if I…"
Several months later, somebody noticed K4NSD had not checked in for a few nights. That was unusual. And the group had come to enjoy his stories and encouragement. Tommy always offered good conversation, excellent insight, and a keen sense of humor that had quickly made him one of the favorites of the bunch. He was missed when he didn't join in.
On Sunday night, there he was, though, chipper as ever, with news about an article he had tracked down on the Internet about balun design.
"Tommy, we missed you the last few days," Claude told him. "We were afraid you had stuck your hand in the high voltage on that amp or something."
"Not even a newbie like me would do something that dumb, Claude," Tommy responded with a laugh. "I had to be out of town for a few days. No big deal."
And that was that.
Then, six months or so later, one of the group regulars, Bill, who lived in Western Kentucky, had an announcement for the bunch.
"Guys, we are driving down to Mobile to take a cruise, and I was thinking we'd stop along the way to eye-ball a couple of you so-and-sos. Even though that might completely destroy the lofty image I have of some of you. But at least it would give you a chance to see how handsome and well-preserved I am for a man of my advanced age. Tommy, we'll be coming right through Nashville and I'd love to stop in, visit for a few minutes, and buy you a glass of sweet tea."
The band was filled with static crashes, a bit of splatter from somebody down the band giving his compressor a good workout. Then Tommy finally piped up.
"When did you say you all were coming through?" Bill told him the date. "Aw, heck! I've…uh…got to be out of town that day."
"Well, how about on the way back through? That'll be Sunday, the 11th, if we don't get hijacked by pirates or I decide to run off with one of those beautiful bikini gals in Cancun."
Another pause. Nobody said anything, waiting for Tommy's answer.
"Man, Bill, I'm missing you every which way. I've got some business stuff going on that day that will tie me up all day."
"Can't you see he's avoiding you, Bill?" Claude opined.
"He sure is, coming up with work on Sunday," Bill kidded. "I'm about to get my feelings hurt and you all know how danged sensitive I am."
"I'm sorry, Bill," K4NSD jumped in quickly, his voice far more serious than the other ham's. "I'd love to meet you, and I really am partial to sweet iced tea, and especially when somebody else is buying. Let's make it for sure the very next time you come through. By the way, you taking a radio with you on the trip? You thought about trying to do something from the cruise ship or…?"
This time, everybody on the group that night noticed how quickly and obviously Tommy had changed the subject. But then the topics flowed, K4NSD was his usual great conversationalist, and before long, they were wrapped up in the QSO-mostly led by K4NSD-and they thought no more about it.
Tommy always seemed to have something to add to the conversation, regardless the theme of the evening. Especially interesting were his recounting of QSOs with his friends across the country and around the world on the other bands. Before long, most members of the 80-meter roundtable felt they knew Charles in Vancouver, Vic, the sheep rancher in ZL-land, and Barney, the antique-car collector and avid DXer from Wales just as well as Tommy did, all based on his descriptions of them.
One of the guys brought up Tommy's employment again after K4NSD told of a three-hour chat he had had earlier that afternoon. It had been with an interesting fellow who lived thirty miles north of Moscow and whose father had fought against Hitler in World War II.
"Tommy, I'd like to know how you keep from getting fired," the roundtable member remarked. "I spend three hours doing anything but putting together cars on an assembly line, my boss sends me packing."
A rare, long silence again. Only a bit of splatter swirling around in the QRN.
Then Tommy responded with his usual booming signal and smooth audio.
"Remember, I'm…uh…self-employed. That means I have an idiot for a boss and a fool for an employee!"
Several guffaws cracked open VOXes and the chat turned toward jobs, bosses, and employees.
Then Tommy was not on the roundtable for a week during in mid- August. Some speculated he might be on vacation. Others wondered if he had rig or antenna trouble, though he certainly seemed to have the technical knowledge by then to fix most any fixable problem. As always, he was missed. Frankly, the net seemed to drag a bit without his spark.
When he failed to join in for the eighth straight night, Joe and Claude exchanged emails. They were planning on driving down to the Huntsville, Alabama, hamfest the next weekend and were already going to meet in Nashville and ride on down the rest of the way together.
"If he doesn't show up in the meantime, let's plan on dropping by and checking on our buddy," Claude wrote. Neither admitted it but part of the reason was simple curiosity. As much as Tommy brought to the group, there was still a maddening sense of mystery about the guy.
QRZ.com confirmed the FCC database address (though there were no photos or information about K4NSD on the QRZ.com page, just a note that his callsign had been searched over 20,000 times). Google Maps showed his QTH to be in a neighborhood south of town, only a few blocks off Interstate 65.
It was mid-day on Friday when Claude and Joe met at a Cracker Barrel restaurant and enjoyed lunch together. The two of them had only had an "eyeball QSO" three or four times over the years they had been on the nightly roundtable. Then they took Joe's car and drove into Tommy's neighborhood, easily locating the house number on his mailbox. A customized passenger van sat in the driveway. The Tennessee license plate proclaimed it belonged to "K4NSD."
Only a couple of hams would have noticed the arc of ladder line feedline spiraling out of a tree in the backyard and toward the rear of the house.
"Bingo!" Claude proclaimed. "We have tracked down the so-and-so!"
It never occurred to either man that Tommy might not have wanted to be found, that their visit might be considered an intrusion. They considered him to be an old friend, and though they had never seen him face-to-face, it was exactly as if they had had coffee with him practically every day for the past ten years, chatting across the table in person.
An older lady cracked the door open cautiously.
"Yes? May I help you?"
"Good afternoon, ma'am," Joe said, removing his callsign ball cap. "We're a couple of buddies of Tommy's and just wanted to stop by and say 'hello.'"
She studied them warily.
"We're ham radio operators," Claude added. "Amateur radio buddies."
The door opened a bit wider and the woman smiled.
Oh! Excuse me. You never know these days. Tell me your names and callsigns and wait here and I'll check to see if…I'll be right back."
The two men looked at each other, but before they could wonder too long, the lady was back, opening the door for them, smiling as she warmly invited them inside. She led them through a neat living room and down a short hallway into what would typically be a den. The smell of cookies permeated the air. The lady did not wait for them to ask.
"You gentlemen go on in and I'll get you some fresh-baked cookies. And which would you like…milk, coffee or iced tea?"
They thanked her and placed their orders.
The big room was dark, the blinds closed against the afternoon sun, but they could hear the sound of a SSB conversation coming from a speaker somewhere. And, as their eyes adjusted from the brightness outside, the dial of a radio came into focus. But strangely, it appeared to be suspended from the ceiling on chains and cocked at an odd angle, not resting on a desk or in a rack.
Then they could see a man, lying beneath a sheet on a big hospital bed. He was amazingly pale, his arms white, resting at his sides. He turned his eyes toward the visitors but his head did not move. A microphone hovered on a boom near his pillow, inches from his dry lips.
"C'mon in, guys," the thin man said, his voice weak but still very, very familiar. He did not offer a hand. "I know. This is what happens when you wrap a motorcycle around a telephone pole. The telephone pole wins every single time."
"Gosh, Tommy, we had no idea," Claude said.
"I know. I know. I really never saw the need to burden you guys with my little problems. I was seventeen, invincible, going much too fast and some grandpa pulled out in front of me. Mom, I can't believe you let these two old crooks into our home! Call the law!"
The last was directed at the lady who was already setting down a plate with several cookies stacked up on it. And though there was no smile on Tommy's lips, there certainly was one in his expressive eyes.
"Sit down, fellows, if you have a few minutes to visit. Now that you've tracked me down, I'll show you my setup."
There was an elaborate bunch of spaghetti-like tubes within reach of his lips that he could use to blow into to control bandswitching, mode selection and other parameters on his radio.
"Mom has to come help me if I need to change bands quickly to chase DX or something," he told them. "I used to do some CW, using some kind of gizmo the rehab folks rigged up and some of the local hams helped me install. It was a touch-screen kind of thing…tied to glasses that let me focus…on a key so I could blow into the tube…and send a character."
Tommy paused then, out of breath, as if the words he spoke had drained him completely of all energy.
"Man, that's amazing!" Joe said, and he was sincere. "Quite a setup."
"Look, Tom, we didn't mean to barge in," Claude told him. "We just had no idea…"
"No idea at all," Joe added. "It's amazing what you have done…getting your ticket, getting on the air, being such a great member of the roundtable. Being such a good operator, even though…"
"I've gotten a lot more…out of that bunch…than I'll ever be able to contribute," Tommy said, and again those few words claimed all his breath.
The two visitors eased down, took a cookie each from the plate, and accepted the offered glasses of cold sweet tea from Tommy's mother.
"We just wanted to make sure everything was all right so we decided…"
"Aw, I appreciate it, guys. I've been…over in Memphis…the hospital over
there…kidneys…darn things are acting up…lately. Just got back…this morning."
Unlike the roundtable when Tommy was aboard, the other two hams carried most of the conversation. Tommy seemed to feel better after a while, seemed to forget how hard it was for him to breathe. For a bit, it might just as well have been the three of them, chatting away on lower sideband just below 3900 on 75 meters.
Finally, after three cookies and three big glasses of tea and a good hour of the in-person roundtable, Joe stood up and put his hand on top of Tommy's still one.
"Buddy, it has been great visiting with you, but we got to get on down to Huntsville. We have to get checked into our room in time for the DX dinner. Is there anything we can help you with before we get out of your way?"
Tommy asked them to tighten the speaker connection on the back of the rig. It had gotten flaky lately and cut out when his mom moved his bed to make it up. And he had them crank up the transmit audio gain and compression on the radio just a notch.
"My voice gets a tad weak sometimes lately," he explained, but asked them to let him know next time he was on the air if he was spattering or distorting with the new settings. He worried about such things. Always had.
"We'll be back home Sunday and maybe you'll feel like…get a chance to get on the roundtable with us," Joe said.
"I plan on it. And you can tell me what gear you saw at the hamfest. What they had good in the boneyard." They started for the door. "Oh, and guys. Thank you. Thank you for letting a new ham break into the group that night. And for being so nice and helpful…to a newcomer…who thought Ohm's Law was a cop show on TV."
"Hate to tell you, old man, but we do that for everybody, not just K4NSD!"
Claude said with a laugh. "We'll put a band scope on that audio Sunday and see how it works. Now, me and Joe have to get on down the way and see what prizes we are going to win and have to lug back home."
Tommy blinked hard and there was the slightest twitch of his cheeks that could have been the beginnings of a smile.
"Seventy-threes, guys. You'll never know…how much I appreciate you."
"Seventy-threes, Tommy," Joe shot back.
Both men were uncharacteristically quiet on the ride down I-65 that afternoon.
Both men hurried home on Sunday and had their rigs on and tuned up early for the roundtable, waiting to hear their friend when he checked in. There were a good dozen stations aboard that evening, and the subject matter ranged far and wide, from the things they saw and heard at the hamfest, to the later-than-usual sporadic-E activity on six meters, to the beginning of college football practice at several stations' favorite schools, all of whom were certainly going to win the national championship that year.
Later on, somebody asked Joe and Claude about their stopping in Nashville, about meeting Tommy. The two let everyone in the group know his situation. They did not figure he would mind. Not so long as they did it the right way.
Then they were back on propagation, the new QRP radio kit Joe bought that day, the boat anchor amplifier Claude purchased and made Joe help him haul all the way out to the car-in Huntsville and then again in Nashville.
"That's all right," Claude added. "I toted that QRP kit for him, too. That thing must've weighed two or three ounces! I'll be sore for a week."
But though most of the group lingered later than usual for a night before a work day, there was no K4NSD that evening.
Nor did he show up on Monday or Tuesday night either.
Wednesday evening, about an hour after the first of the crew showed up, a W4 broke in, a station nobody recognized, but with a good, smooth signal. Joe quickly acknowledged him and told him to come on in "and put your feet up and stay a while. We can use a signal like yours to scare the riff raff away."
"Thanks for letting me in, guys. My name's Cliff and I'm in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville. I just wanted to…well…I'm afraid I have bad news. Tommy Fowler, K4NSD, passed away Monday morning."
For several seconds the 75-meter band went about as quiet as anyone had ever heard it.
Claude was the first to speak up.
"Gosh, Cliff, that is some tough news," he said, his voice breaking slightly. "We really appreciate you coming onboard tonight to tell us, though."
"There's one other thing I wanted to share," the W4 said. "I know Tommy would want me to tell you this. Especially you guys. I think you, of all people, will understand it." Cliff's voice trembled slightly as he spoke. If it was possible to hear someone swallow hard over the air and from hundreds of miles away, then everybody on the roundtable that night heard Cliff swallow hard. Then, back in control, he went on. "This is something Tommy told a bunch of us one day when we were over at his place helping put up an antenna or something. He asked us to sit down for a minute. That he wanted to say something. He told us, 'Boys, from the day I first transmitted a signal on the air, from the night I broke into that roundtable on 75 meters, I ceased to be paralyzed anymore. The day those guys welcomed me into their group, I was no longer tied to this bed and that feeding tube and all these catheters. I traveled the world starting that night and along the way, I met the most amazing people. That bunch…you guys who help me stay on the air…the friends I have made all over the planet…all of that gave me my legs and hands back and made it possible for me to live with this thing.'"
This time it sounded as if somebody had let the air out of the band. Even the QRN, the splatter, and the squalling heterodynes chose to remain hushed for a few moments.
They talked about Tommy for a while, and would do so off and on for weeks. Nobody would ever replace their friend, they decided. Then, with Cliff sticking around and joining in, the topics that night drifted back to the usual: who they had seen at the hamfest, what the latest piece of gear reviewed in QST was, whether sending iambic CW was worth the learning.
Then, during a short lull just before ten o'clock, a young, high-pitched voice suddenly chimed in, interrupting the flow of the group, and tentatively saying, "Uh…breaker, breaker."
"Sounds like we have someone who has dared to break into this bunch of wool-gatherers," Joe responded. "Well, welcome, breaker. Come on in and tell us your call sign, your name and where you are."
"Uh…this is…uh…K M 5 C Q P." The youngster said the number and letters slowly, as if reading them off a slip of paper. "My…name…handle…uh…personal…is Danny Smith and I'm in Little Rock, Arkansas."
"Well, Danny, welcome to the roundtable. It's our pleasure to have you with us tonight. We are delighted to have Little Rock represented. Can we do anything in particular for you or do you just want to come on in and raise the average IQ of this bunch by twenty or thirty points?"
Yes sir. See, I just got my antenna up in the attic…" The signal faded deeply and then came back. The audio carried a bit of distortion. The youngster's voice trembled slightly. "…signal report, if you don't mind, sir. I just got my license last week and…well…you are my first contact on the ham."
There was a short pause before Joe and then each of the stations came back in turn. They would not only give Danny his signal report but enthusiastically welcome him to amateur radio, 75 meters, and the nightly roundtable.
In that short pause, it was easy to sense the big grins on the faces of each and every op who was listening in.
(Inspired by Ric Sims K4SCI and Mike Ferguson KE4UMD, both SK.)
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.