Transcript - Episode 80 - Mike Rainey - AA1TJ
Eric 4Z1UG: QSO Today Episode 80. Mike Rainey, AA1TJ.
Welcome to the QSO Today Podcast. I am Eric Guth, 4Z1UG, your host.
I saw a video on YouTube of a ham shouting Morse Code into a tomato can to transmit a sound-powered RF signal over the air. Of course my reaction was that this was a clever invention by an amateur radio operator with whom, if you had to spend time on a desert island, you would want him to be your companion.
My guest today, Mike Rainey, AA1TJ, is the same ham, and has an interesting story to tell.
AA1TJ, this is Eric, 4Z1UG. Are you there, Mike?
Mike AA1TJ: 4Z1UG, this is AA1TJ. Yes I am, Eric.
Eric 4Z1UG: Mike, thanks for joining me on the QSO Today podcast. Can we start at the beginning of your Ham radio story? When and how did it start for you?
That was the age of seven. I retained kind of a growing interest in shortwave listening. My parents had a Philips radio. It had AM and some shortwave bands. We kept it on our kitchen counter. I remember it was one of those dials that had the cities listed, and I thought it was remarkable that with this little box, you could turn the knob to point to match a city and magically hear it. Unfortunately, it was out of date, and I never was able to match up the dial with the cities, but again, it gave me a sense of this magic of this thing called radio.
I finally went for my ham license after I met a fellow down the street named Dennis J. McCarthy, a very fine gentleman. His call was KB0YTI. He's from St. Louis, Missouri, which is where I grew up. Dennis had nine sons of his own and a daughter, none of which were interested in radio. But he made time for a kid from down the block who had an interest. It was through Dennis that I got my Novice License. That was 1970, '71. I can't quite remember which it was, but that time period.
My first rig was an Ameco AC1, which a lot of people will be familiar with. It was a 6V6GT Pentode Oscillator. Crystal controlled. It put out about somewhere around five watts. I used it with a 40 meter dipole strung on a city lot. It was up around 15 feet. It was putting most of its energy straight up. I made over 500 QSOs with that radio, that transmitter. Never worked any DX. DX for me was working New York state from St. Louis. But I had a great time with it.
Eric 4Z1UG: You grew up in the St. Louis area?
Mike AA1TJ: That's right, yep. My father was in the military. We traveled everywhere. We lived in North Africa for a couple of years, and this is where we pretty much ended up when he got out of the service.
Eric 4Z1UG: What kind of receiver did you use with the AC1?
Mike AA1TJ: It was a radio I bought from a store down the street, Radio Shack, which is my only supply store in those days. It was a DX120.
Eric 4Z1UG: Oh, very cool. The Ameco had the TR switch built in?
Mike AA1TJ: No. I used a double pull double throw and knife switch. A Frankenstein-style knife switch to transmit and receive.
Eric 4Z1UG: High voltage on the knife switch?
Mike AA1TJ: Well, they did have a series blocking capacity, lucky for me.
Eric 4Z1UG: That sounds terrific. So you upgraded not long after that?
Mike AA1TJ: It was about a year, and I got my General License, and with that, a friend told me there was a CB-er down the block that had an old DX100 Heathkit Transmitter, and wanted 15 bucks or something for it. I remember with his help, we went down the street with a little red wagon and pulled the beast back home, and helped me lug it up the stairs into my bedroom. I used that to work my first DX on 15 and then 20 meters. I enjoyed that.
Eric 4Z1UG: You've remained a CW operator throughout this time, or did you ever take any soirees into other bands and modes?
Mike AA1TJ: That would be with that DX100 after I got my General License. I tuned up one day on 40 meters with AM, and my first contact gave me a scolding for having a carrier on an extra sideband. I switched away and that was pretty much my last phone contact.
Eric 4Z1UG: How did ham radio play a part in the choices that you made for your education and career?
Mike AA1TJ: I went to school to study philosophy, of all things. I got bored of it after about two years. I dropped out and joined the Coast Guard. Ham radio and the interest of electronics kind of came and went in that time period. I eventually did pick it up after I got out of the Coast Guard. I went to work for Washington University at their medical school, and worked as a technician kind of learning on the job. Worked there for four years. After that I went to work for an ultrasonic medical device company as a technician. Than an intracranial pressure monitor manufacturer, again in the medical industry.
Finally, I worked for 24 years for WCX Television, here in Vermont. Kind of an unusual job. I was a transmitter operator on top of a 4,000 foot mountain, Vermont's highest mountain, Mount Mansfield. I would typically go to work at Friday evening and stay up alone on top of the mountain in their transmitter hut until Sunday evening. Again, I did that for 24 years, and retired in 2012.
Eric 4Z1UG: When you were in the Coast Guard, were you involved in any technical aspect of the Coast Guard? Was it a technical job that you had there?
Mike AA1TJ: No, I was a Seaman. Just a grunt.
Eric 4Z1UG: Patrolling the shores of America.
Mike AA1TJ: Yeah. At San Francisco, I was lucky enough to be out and loved it out there. Then spent time in Cape Cod in Woods Hole. Another place I go back every year.
Eric 4Z1UG: One of my earlier QSO Today guests also was quite philosophical and also joined the Coast Guard, where he was an electronic engineer for a while. I didn't think he'd become an engineer, but he's probably one of the better ones that I know.
Mike AA1TJ: Oh, excellent.
Eric 4Z1UG: What kind of impact does amateur radio have or did it have on your family life?
Mike AA1TJ: My wife did become a ham. She has her Technician's License, although I'm sorry to say, she's never been on the air. I think she did it to show an affinity and support of my hobby.
I actually got back on the air after a long break in 2007. I've been at it pretty steady since 2007, but there was a break when I was interested in physics and mathematics, I collected mathematical instruments. For a period I got back into crystal radios. I would build crystal shortwave radios and listen to them. I spent a winter listening to non-directional beacons, low-frequency beacons with a one tube receiver that I had built, regenerative receiver. It was kind of sputtering off and on for many years. Again, I was doing it during the day, and a lot of electronics during the day. It was one of those things where you just didn't feel like doing it when you got home in the evening. I felt like doing something different.
Eric 4Z1UG: When you were working those 24 years in the transmitter hut on the tallest mountain in Vermont, did that give you time to work on any projects or were you mostly a reader?
Mike AA1TJ: In the early days I read a lot. I read and looked out the window, looked out the telescope a lot. When internet came in, I read less books and played more on the internet. It did give me quite a lot of time. It was a perfect job for a person like me, a person with many interests. It gave me time to pursue things that I was interested in.
Eric 4Z1UG: As I told you before we started, I had a chance to find your old website on the Wayback Machine. I took some time looking over the body of work that you published online, and somehow I'm taken more with your approach to our ham radio art than the technology itself. There's a philosophy that drives you more than a MacGyver cleverness, I think. Was there a mentor or event in your growing up that planted this way of looking at the world?
Mike AA1TJ: That's a tough one, Eric. I can't think why I came to like and enjoy the sort of things that I do. That's an excellent question. I suppose when I got out of Boot Camp, they'd held my pay for three months while I was in Boot Camp with the Coast Guard. Then they gave me a big fat check. It was more money than I'd ever in my hands at one time, so I went out and bought a Yaesu FT301SD Transceiver. It was that thing that I'd always aspired to have, this brand new state of the art, beautiful transceiver. I had it for about three months. It just wasn't what I was into.
I was more interested and had more excitement in the time, for instance, when I had just gotten my General and I built a one transistor oscillator using a field effect transistor. It put out about 15 to 20 mW, and I remember making a contact from St. Louis with a fellow in Rochester, Minnesota. I just thought that was the coolest thing. So I sold the transceiver. I knew right away that this kind of wasn't for me, that I was going to be more of the, I don't know if you want to say the MacGyver type, but I was more interested in building everything.
As a matter of fact, my last commercial radio that I've owned was an HW8. That was 1981 when I purchased that. I sold that when I moved to Vermont in '84. That was my last commercial piece of gear. When I got back on the air in 2007, I decided that I would only do ham radio with all homebrew equipment, and whenever possible, with salvaged equipment. Lucky for me I have a big junk box due to my time up on the mountain. They went through several generations of transmitters, most of which have been taken apart and now reside in little boxes in my shack.
Eric 4Z1UG: That's very cool. In 2008, you got an idea to make a working transmitter from the components from a discarded compact fluorescent bulb. What inspired this project, and how did it turn out?
Mike AA1TJ: It was a spur of the moment thing. We had a light go out. My wife asked me to change a light bulb over the kitchen counter. As I was taking the bulb out, I was literally unscrewing it and thinking, "Gee, I wonder what sort of electronics are in this?" So I took it down to my shop and got a hacksaw and opened it up, and found a couple of transistors. It just went from there.
I had a great time with that. I built a transmitter with that, made a bunch of contacts, and then thought, "Hmm. Get another bulb, make a receiver." So I did that as well. That was a lot of fun. Actually, the other thing I did was when I retired from Mount Mansfield, my old electric razor, my Braun electric razor, was ready for the scrap heap. I thought I'd do the same thing with that. I opened it up and found all these little surface mount transistors, and I thought, "Okay. I'm going to make a radio with this." So I made a transmitter and receiver, and made a bunch of QSOs again, and ended up talking with a fellow in France. As I mentioned, I get a kick out of telling people that I've talked to France on my electric razor.
Eric 4Z1UG: Which is pretty much the truth. But there are some other parts that you certainly added to this as well to make this whole thing work.
Mike AA1TJ: That's right. When I used the compact fluorescent bulb, I used as many of the components as I possibly could and tried to use them in innovative or inventive ways where you would normally have to go out and get another component. For instance, I added another winding to an inductor and turned it into a transformer, and that sort of thing. I went out of my way to use as many components as possible. Of course I needed a quartz crystal to set the frequency. But certainly all the active devices, and many of the passive devices, were from the compact fluorescent bulb.
Eric 4Z1UG: What is the New England Code Talker?
Mike AA1TJ: That was an idea I had for generating a radio frequency signal using the power from my voice. I had read in a physics book one time that if everyone in New York City were to talk at once, it would power, I believe they said, a 60 watt light bulb. It was supposed to convey the understanding that there is very little energy associated with our voice, with acoustic energy.
I was curious about that, so I got an olive can out of the recycle bin, and I found a dynamic loudspeaker in my junk box. I cut both ends off the olive can, the back end off the olive can, and taped the loudspeaker to it. I did some experiments, and I found out that if I were to make a fairly close coupling to the acoustic cavity, that I was seeing some appreciable power, 10-20 mW. I thought, "Okay, I could do something with this."
I started on 80 meters. I built a one transistor oscillator. I rectified the energy from this can and loudspeaker, and my first contact ... Actually I didn't start with Morse Code. I tried to use this on AM. This fellow over in Maine who heard one of my beacons one day, another project I had going ... a very early point contact Germanium transistor project ... he heard my beacon one day, and he called me on the phone. He said, "Mike, I hear this signal," and as we were talking, he said, "I hear a back wave between your key down periods." I said, "Hmm, that's interesting. You're hearing ..." It was less than 100 uW he was hearing from Vermont to Maine, and so he was hearing this incredibly low signal level.
It just so happened I had the olive can in the arrangement on the bench, and I tried to use it on AM. He was happy to oblige. I remember the morning we were doing these experiments on 80 meters, he was hearing me just fine. It was plenty of signal. But, the modulation was terrible. It was very difficult for him to understand. It was pitiful.
We had a funny exchange where I was making changes on my circuit as he would give me feedback on how I sounded. I remember at one point he said, "You sound like a dog." Then I'd say, "Okay, I'm going to make the change. I'm changing this part of the circuit." Then I would try again, and he'd say, "That's better. You sound like a seal now." I wanted so badly to make the QSO, because he was not copying my signal report, and he could not copy my call sign because of the distortion.
All of the sudden, a light bulb went off in my head, and I said, "Wait a minute. You're a ham radio operator. You know Morse Code." So I started going, "Di dah di dah di dah dah dah dah dah dah di dah dah dah." And of course he came right back and said, "Perfect copy." He's coming back to me on AM saying, "Perfect copy." So we made the QSO.
From there, I switched over to what I called the New England Code Talker, that's what I named it. Oh, I had a great time with that. On 80 meters using the power of my voice, I talked to people in the Carolina's, both North and South Carolina, Georgia, all over. I have one memorable QSO. It was with Dale Parfitt, W4OP. Dale had a very nice copy on me that day. Now remember, I'm giving my operatic voice, and I'm bellowing into this tin can, and I had this Zen moment, I guess you could say, where I felt the wave coming out of my chest, this acoustic wave, this force of energy. Then I had this vision of the wave bouncing off the ionosphere. It almost was enough to give you the spins in the chair. It was a very memorable QSO for that reason. I really felt as if I was part of the machine, as they say. So that was exciting.
Another fellow heard me from as far away as Louisiana. I think he was a physics instructor. He went to the club's station when he heard about this operation and copied me on the club station out there in Louisiana. I did move it up to 20 meters making contacts. I tried to cross the pond with it. I was not successful at that time, unfortunately. But again, had a great time with it.
Eric 4Z1UG: There's a video online on YouTube, of you doing Morse Code into the olive can. Did you change the design so it became that you were actually keying the transmitter in CW mode with the sound, or was it always just AM?
Mike AA1TJ: Again, I started attempting to use it as an AM transmitter, but when that wasn't working out and the distortion was just a real problem, I got into the physics of it a little bit and found out that there was a difference in energy between the vowels and the consonants as far as acoustic voice power, so there was a fundamental problem with trying to transmit intelligible acoustic signal modulation in that way. Someone could probably add some sort of pre-distortion or whatever, manage to work around that. Once I figured out that CW would work, I was all off into CW. It's my thing anyway.
When I would bellow, "Di dah," it actually would key the transmitter because that's the DC pulse that would be generated and used by the oscillator to turn the oscillator on. It both keyed the transmitter and powered it as well.
Eric 4Z1UG: What kind of antenna system do you have, because your operating mW, uW, here it's what it's called QRPP?
Mike AA1TJ: That's right. Yeah. I'm into extreme QRPP, down in the mW range. I don't think I have used more than 100 or 200 mW in many years. Mostly I'm 50 mW and below. I've crossed the pond on half a dozen occasions with 10 mW on 20 meters.
But to answer your question, I have an Inverted L. It's not a good antenna at all. It's the best I can do where I'm ... I'm in the hills of Vermont. I have a small clearing. My shack is underground. It's an underground kind of a secret bunker. I call it the hobbit hole. It's on the edge of the clearing. What I do is I just bring the coax up to a tree where I have a tuner affixed to the side of a spruce tree, and the wire goes up a hill. There's no flat part of my land. Everything is very hilly here. It's and 80 meter wavelength piece of wire. I use it on all bands. It's very much of a compromise antenna, but surprisingly I do pretty well with QRPP.
Eric 4Z1UG: So all of those naysayers out there that says you actually have to have a resonant piece of wire and a lot of power to make a QSO, you're just proving them wrong here.
Mike AA1TJ: Yeah. Again, I was surprised to do so well. I would be astonished, probably, if I ever had a decent antenna. I don't think I've ever in my ham radio career, had a decent antenna, beginning with that 15 foot high dipole, 40 meter dipole that I had on a city lot beneath all the phone lines and power lines and whatever.
If I ever had a beam on a tower or something like that, I wouldn't know what to do with it.
Eric 4Z1UG: Do you work any of the digital modes, or do you stick primarily with the CW?
Mike AA1TJ: No, I don't. I have not worked any digital modes so far.
Eric 4Z1UG: I saw a picture of a transceiver of yours on the SolderSmoke Daily News webpage, built completely on protoboard. You described a QSO that you made from Vermont to the Azores using a 50 mW signal. These are very low QRP signals and are often heard on digital modes like JT65, but I don't hear a lot of CW contacts at this power level. Can you describe this transceiver and what led to its creation?
Mike AA1TJ: Oh, gosh. I'm trying to remember that one. I build so many, Eric. Again, I don't have any commercial gear. As a matter of fact, I don't really, at this point, have any gear that I've actually finish built into a cabinet. When I operate, I build something on a breadboard. This is the way I've been doing it for the last couple of years. I build something on the breadboard, usually the protoboard because I'm lazy. I operate until I'm tired of doing that particular thing, or move on to the next project. I take the board apart and build something new.
When I want to make a contact, I usually go down and build something first. Again, the project on the breadboard at the present is a uni-junction transistor putting out 120 uW on 80 meters. It's just whatever I feel like doing at the moment is what I build.
Eric 4Z1UG: You built this transceiver called The Bell Ringer that looks like it actually went off the protoboard and into a box.
Mike AA1TJ: Oh yes, that was a rarity here. I did build that into a little box, and I think that appeared in a book somewhere. Someone asked to use that, take the information off my webpage and use it in a book of some ... I think it was an English publication, a British publication.
That started out with the idea to make a Pixie type radio where you're using the same parts with the circuit on transmit and receive with very slight changes, without any heavy switching going on. It kind of grew. It kind of got a little bit out of hand. It doesn't have the original flavor as minimalist Pixie design. I was using some audio filtering, and that sort of thing. I made a lot of contacts with that radio. It put out one and a half watts as I remember, and I got tired of that because it seemed too easy to me. So I don't have that rig anymore. Again, I'm more inclined to use mW these days.
Eric 4Z1UG: I'll put a link to The Bell Ringer on the website, and hopefully you'll actually extract all of these papers that you've done off of this archive, webarchive.org site and put it back on your own, because it's really cool stuff. I must say, I've spent an hour on your site before I even called you this morning.
You're considered by Bill, N3CQR, who was a guest at QSO Today Podcast, as "The Mad Genius" of the QRP world. What has been the attraction of the QRP mode, and how does this lead up to your unusual creations? Or do you think it was the unusual creations that actually led to the QRP mode?
Mike AA1TJ: First of all, Bill is very generous. But I've always been interested in puzzles. I spend a couple years solving Japanese Temple Geometry Puzzles. For someone interested, it's quite interesting, people back in the 15, 1600s would actually post, in temples, geometrical problems for other people to solve. Two high school geometry teachers actually collaborated to create and produce a book. They went around Japan and collected these puzzles. I spent a couple years ... it almost became an obsession with me. I would get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and I would be solving these problems. So I'm into puzzles. That's one of my hobbies.
I suppose that plays into, I don't want it to be too easy. There's a certain level of difficulty that's the sweet spot. When things are too difficult, you give up. When things are too easy, it's not interesting. QSO for me has to be a challenge. It has to be a good possibility of failing. If someone is copying every letter that I'm sending, I feel like I'm doing something wrong. I should be reducing power. I should be increasing the challenge a little bit. I suppose that's why I'm interested in unusual designs, using things in strange ways, pushing old Germanium Transistors beyond their limit.
Or for instance, the project on the breadboard is a uni-junction, which those were mainly used in the '60s and '70s as relaxation oscillators for low frequency. But in this particular device, I'm running it at 500 kHz with a frequency locking relaxation oscillation with 500 kHz quartz crystal, and then I took off the seventh harmonic, 3-1/2 MHz It's a strange way to do things, but for some reason, I like the challenge of doing things the hard way.
Eric 4Z1UG: Well, I'll say. What's the Reggae? Do you remember what that is?
Mike AA1TJ: Oh, the Reggie. I do remember the Reggie.
Eric 4Z1UG: The Reggie.
Mike AA1TJ: Yeah, the Reggie. Reggie was named after Reggie, in honor of Reggie Fessenden, the great Canadian/American radio pioneer. Mr. Fessenden was the inventor of the Heterodyne Receiver. It was an idea before it's time, though, because they didn't have ... when he invented the Heterodyne, they didn't have a good source of continuous wave energy other than an alternator or an arc transmitter. Those both were fairly unwieldy for a small radio receiver. The Reggie was a one transistor oscillator that used a 3.58 mHz ceramic resonator as a VXO, variable crystal oscillator. Covered the entire 80 meter CW band, put out about 50 to 80 mW from one end of the band to the other.
As you know, VXO, variable crystal oscillator, the output power changes from one of the range unit to the other, but on receive, the Reggie was a gainless receiver. There was no gain added, so it was basically on receive there was a heterodyne mixer. It was a crystal radio, basically with the Heterodyne. The challenge there, aside from the QRP, QRPP I suppose I would say, 50 to 80 mW, the challenge there was to receive a signal with no added gain. I made over 400 QSOs with that radio, on 80 meters.
I was just talking to my friend Dave Benson, K1SWL, the other day, about 80 meter DX and how much we enjoy it. I happened to mention to him that I worked a fellow in the Caribbean with the Reggie, which was my only real DX. But I had a real dance with a fellow in one of the Baltic states, I think it was Lithuania. He was clearly hearing me, and we went back and forth for ... it seemed like a long time, but you know it probably was only a minute. He tried to pick my call out of noise on 80 meters with that radio, and the closest he got was AA7TJ, so he never copied my call, so I can't call it a contact, but I thought that was pretty cool to be heard on 80 meters with that low of power.
Eric 4Z1UG: I'm looking at it's schematic right now. Literally there's a single 2N22-22 with like four or five diodes. This is an amazingly simple circuit design. What it reminds me, in my mind's eye, I see these old tube transceivers, you know transmitter receivers that were made in the spark era?
Mike AA1TJ: Yes.
Eric 4Z1UG: You know it's that simple, and yet, it's a transceiver. It's not a transmitter or receiver. It's doing both. That's what's so clever about it. It's so simple on the one hand, and it's so cheap on the other hand. For people that say I can't get on the air for less than a few hundred bucks, we're not even looking at $5.00 worth of parts here.
Mike AA1TJ: Yeah. That's right. The other thing it used was diode switching, as I remember, the radio. I sent it to a fellow, the radio that you see on the webpage, I sent that to a fellow in the Czech Republic. Presumably he's using it there, or I hope he's enjoying it there. Some years ago.
Yeah, it used diode switching for transmit and receive, I remember that was one of the features. I had a great time with that radio for sure.
Eric 4Z1UG: Well, I take it back. It's more than $5.00 because you have a variable capacitor.
Mike AA1TJ: I had a phone call one day by a fellow, his name was Jack. Jack Ward is his name. He's the curator of the Online Transistor Museum. What a nice fellow. He had seen my webpage, and he was curious if I would be interested in trying to recreate one of the first amateur radio rigs used, transistorized rigs I mean, used on the air, to make contact. Of course I jumped at the opportunity. So he sent me some very early point contact transistors made by Bell Telephone. These were only slightly removed from the original thing. Remember the piece of plastic with the little cat whisker contacts coming down to it? This was a somewhat refined version of that, but it was still a point contact transistor. Kind of an iffy device at best.
He sent me some of these, and he had no idea if they still worked or not. I did a little research and found out that as far as I could tell, the first semi-conductor radio made by hams was actually a Pixie type transceiver, believe it or not, made by a fellow in England. He worked for, I think it was Mullard, maybe. I might have that wrong. This was in the early 50s, and he had just gotten his hands on one of these transistors from his work, and built it into a radio and made some very local contacts there in the UK.
What was fascinating was he basically built a Pixie which, again, is a transmitter that they improvise a receiver out of the transmitter. He'd done the same thing, and I just thought that was fascinating.
Around the same time period, there was a ... Oh gosh, I forget his name now, his call sign now. But it was a ham here in the US built. It was an article in QSG about it years ago. Had also built a transmitter, very early. Before hams could ever get their hands on these devices, he built a transistorized transmitter on two meters, of all things. At a time when transistors were still on fairly low frequency devices.
Some point contact transistors were fairly unique in that they could be pushed up to higher frequencies. Once the junction devices which were much more reliable came about, they had to start over again at much lower frequencies and then work their way up with refinements in the technology.
Eric 4Z1UG: You did a great job of citing the history of these devices on your website, and I'll put a link to that in the Show Notes page. Just to go back slightly, the ham that I interviewed in Episode 61 was Phil Anderson, W0XI. Phil has a side business where he sells these crystal kits, to schools to interest children in getting radio signals off the air. It was through his catalog that I actually saw that he has a lot of these parts, so if people are interested in building very similar Pixie type radios like you're building with the 2N22-22's, a lot of these parts are available there if you don't have a big junk box, so I'll just point that out as well.
It's interesting that you said that you were going to be a philosophy major and you did that for two years, because one of the things that I saw on your website that was remarkable is you write, "The British philosopher, Frank Ramsey, writes, 'I do not the least humbled before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love, and these are qualities that impress me far more than does size.'" How does this statement animate your life now and perhaps your approach to amateur radio?
Mike AA1TJ: Okay. Well, I don't know how far you want me to go off on that tangent here, because I can go for a while. This is about ham radio, right?
Eric 4Z1UG: It's about ham radio, but it's interesting you know, I think we come to ham radio for different reasons along our path. What I was impressed about by looking at your site was the way that you look at ham radio, which is very different from the way that a lot of hams I've met through my 43 years look at ham radio. This is kind of what rang a bell with me.
Mike AA1TJ: Let me try to put it this way, Eric. I had a struggle in the early days of my life. I clearly had an interest in engineering, just a real fascination with it. At the same time, I remember telling myself I wanted to do something in my life that really mattered. For me, engineering, as fascinating as it was, was a bit utilitarian. I had a bias that it was just kind of mundane. I wanted to do something kind of all encompassing, something like philosophy. What I did was I spent years going back and forth, back and forth. Should I devote myself to this or that? In the end, I never ended up doing either one well.
How I finally worked it out to myself is ... I have to back up and say I would get back into ham radio, and I'd be really having a great time, and then I would start thinking about it and I'm thinking, "You know, what is this all about? What are you doing? What is your goal? What are you aiming to do here?" And I would think to myself, "Really, nothing. I'm just having a good time." Then I would almost chastise myself for doing so. Then I would put it all away, I would get rid of all my equipment or whatever, and concentrate on philosophy or mathematics.
This sounds a little wild, I know. How I finally worked it out to myself, was that what is important in life? My answer is what is important is just doing what you love. I don't think there's any way to get beyond that. When you tell your wife that you love her, you don't try to explain why you love her. You would never even think to go there, because there really is no adequate "why". Philosophers have written entire books, and I was interested in the philosophy of love for quite a while, and read quite a lot on it. The idea is that there is no going beyond this concept that you don't love this hobby, or you don't love this thing that you do in your life for any further reason. It's not a means to another end. It is the end.
The best way I think to spend my life, I've decided, is to do what I love, and one of the things is amateur radio.
Eric 4Z1UG: I think maybe this is why this is ringing to me so well, because I had similar problems in my life with being in engineering school, and getting there and realizing I couldn't do differential equations, but the blond haired blue eyed girl who couldn't give a whatever about engineering could do the differential equations on the back of a napkin. I took a different direction. But everything you're saying kind of rings in my life as well. What's the point of it and why do I love it so much? You've kind of spelled that out quite eloquently.
If you were looking back on your younger ham radio self, is there anything that you would have done differently? Or something in the hobby that you'd pursue that you're not pursuing now?
Mike AA1TJ: I think in order to go back, if I were to go back and change anything, that would be meddling in the road to the path that I was on that led me to the point where I am. Since I'm so pleased with where I am at the moment, I don't know if I would want to go back and change anything. It's been said that we're basically the history of our mistakes, and if I think about that, everything I've done up to this point has led me to where I am today.
Most of what I do is usually wrong. It's always been that way. When I'm building a project, most of them do not work. You're only seeing the few successes out of many many failures. I think that's how we learn. If I were to build something, a circuit project out of a textbook, and it would work, I would learn something. But if I were to dream up a circuit and attempt to build it, and have it not work, and maybe work on it, and have it work a little better but still not work, I've learned a great deal, is the way I look at it.
I made a lot of false steps in my ham hobby. Again, I say I started and stopped. I was off the air for a long period of time. But I'm happy with where I ended up. I've made peace with the hobby. I'm not ashamed that I'm a nerd.
You're at the same age as I, Eric. You'll remember. I remember when I was in school, I played rugby, I boxed, I was into bodybuilding and all that. But I had this little secret thing I did, I was almost ashamed to tell other people. I would sneak off to the university amateur radio club station and talk on the radio. I was almost ashamed that my friends would know that. At a certain age, you get over that. I'm very happy with where I am in the hobby today.
Eric 4Z1UG: I am, too. I like getting the blank stares from people when I say, "Oh, I do amateur radio," and they look at me and they say, "Oh, do people still do that?"
Mike AA1TJ: Cute.
Eric 4Z1UG: What advice would you give to new or returning hams to the hobby?
Mike AA1TJ: Just follow your interests, is all. I mean, what other advice would I give? I'm so off on some strange tangent, and happy with where I am. Just whatever aspect of the hobby ... and there's so many possibilities, so many places, roads to travel in amateur radio. It's such a wide ranging hobby. Just find the path that you're interested in. Don't be afraid to change if it's not working out for you.
For instance, when I bought that transceiver, I thought this is what a good ham does, and he aspires to have this really nice transceiver. It just wasn't working for me, so okay. So I changed. That's the advice I would give to a newcomer. Just do whatever. Follow your interests, basically. The old saying is, "Follow your bliss." That's what I would advise.
Eric 4Z1UG: Mike, if you have a garden, an antenna, and a library, you have everything you need. Loosely quoting Marcus Tullius Cicero. After all these years in the hobby, and in life, do you still believe this?
Mike AA1TJ: Well, Eric, I live back in the woods with my wife in a house that I built on a piece of land that we cleared the trees with a six foot cross-cut saw, no motor attached. I hewed the beams, for the timber frame in my garage out of spruce trees with a broad ax. I dug the foundation for this house, this masonry house, with a pick and shovel. We did everything with our own hands. Vicky and I, my wife and I, came to this piece of land in 1984 and we've made a life. A very simple life. I would say probably 25% of the food we eat we grow. We have a big root cellar.
I live a very basic life. I spend very little money. I live on a shoestring, but I don't think I could be happier. I like telling my wife, I think numbers people can say this, I feel like I've won the lottery. If you have your health and you have someone you love with you, there is nothing else that you could ever hope for. I am one of the happiest men alive I think, and I'm very blessed. I hope other people could feel that as well.
Eric 4Z1UG: It was Bill, N2CQR, from the SolderSmoke Podcast that suggested that I contact you and interview you for the QSO Today Podcast. I have to tell you that I feel like I won the lottery today. I really appreciate your coming on to the QSO Today Podcast, and with that, I'm going to wish you 73. I hope that I work you on the air, QRP.
Mike AA1TJ: I look forward to it, Eric. It was a pleasure meeting you.
Eric 4Z1UG: That concludes this episode of the QSO Today Podcast. Please check out the Show Notes page by putting in AA1TJ in the search bar at the top of the page at www.qsotoday.com.
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Until next time, this is Eric, 4Z1UG 73.