Cold War Phone Patch from Europe to US
A ‘ham’ makes a transatlantic love connection
Friday, January 20, 2006
I can’t believe that it has been 51 years since I served in the U.S. Army at the age of 21.
My mind is aging faster than my body at this particular juncture in my life. But my observation of my army stint was brought into clear focus this week when I was reading about our brave men and women who are serving in the Middle East. Modern technology allows them to be in instant touch with their relatives and friends via e-mail and satellite communications. When I was in the service, the average soldier had to rely on air mail as the fastest form of communication with our loved ones at home. It got me to thinking how things have changed since that cold and snowy December in 1956 when I was stationed in the Bavarian Alps as a Morse code intercept operator. I had contacted the local base communications officer and found that a transoceanic phone call to my wife in Hamilton Township would cost $12.95 per minute. When you are a lowly corporal sending an allotment home, the balance in your pocket leaves pitifully little to spend on such luxuries.
I was about to encounter the fascinating world of amateur radio. One of my bunkmates was a “ham” from West Virginia. He heard me mention the high cost of a phone call to the states. It turns out that the army brass let him utilize the amateur radio station which the signal corps boys had set up in the control tower of the Luftwaffe airfield where we were stationed. He offered to attempt a “phone patch.”
For my non “ham” readers, a phone patch is a bit complicated. Let me explain. We amateur radio operators are allowed to freely operate on radio frequencies designated by the Federal Communications Commission for amateur use. In this case, the frequency range was “40 meters,” or the amateur frequencies in the 7.200 area of the radio spectrum.
I wrote to Judy well in advance and told her I was going to attempt to contact her on a prearranged evening and time, and that she should be near the phone just in case we succeeded in accessing a patch. So, at 1 a.m. on that below-zero morning in 1956, we trudged through the snow to that old Luftwaffe control tower.
I was about to fall in love with amateur radio. My ham buddy Al Poland took his seat near an impressive Collins “KWS-1″ transmitter and an adjacent 75A4 radio receiver. He flipped a couple switches, waited for the radio to warm up, and began speaking a strange language: “CQ, CQ, CQ central New Jersey, Hello, CQ, CQ Central New Jersey area, this is DL4RK portable W8 looking for a phone patch to Trenton, New Jersey.”
With bated breath I waited for a reply. Nothing was heard except for the substantial interference from other stations on a typical evening on “40 meter phone.” Al repeated the “CQ” which is amateur radio for “hey, anybody out there hear me?”
And then it happened!
“DL4RK, DL4RK, this is W3XXX . . . . Downingtown, Pennsylvania.”
(I don’t recall the answering station’s call sign). The contact was made, and the incoming signal was very strong. Hams call each other “old man,” and a lady is known as an “XYL” for ex-young lady.
“Thanks for answering the call old man, the name here is Al. Any chance of a patch through to Trenton?”
“No problem, Al,” came the answer, “Let me have the number.”
The number is JU7-0009 I repeat, J for Juliet, U for Uncle, seven, zero, zero, zero, niner.”
“Stand by, Al, I’m dialing now.”
Over that Collins 75A4 I heard a telephone ring. Once, twice, and then, “Hello?”
“Is this Judy Glover?”
“Yes it is.”
“I have your husband Tom on the phone from Germany. He’s calling from an amateur radio station over in Germany. Will you accept the charges from Downingtown, Pennsylvania?”
I can’t explain the thrill I experienced as Judy and I spent 10 wonderful minutes conversing on the telephone via transatlantic radio, with only an occasional fade of the signal. As we signed off, that wonderful gentleman in Downingtown told my wife that he was picking up the toll call from Downingtown to Trenton. As an ex-G.I. he said he was more than happy to pick up the tab.
As we walked back to the barracks that evening, Al explained the “ins and outs” of amateur radio, and when I mentioned how nice it was that the Downingtown gentleman paid for the phone call, Al said most amateurs are known for their courtesy and generosity. He also told me that my 30-word-per-minute proficiency in Morse code would hold me in good stead if and when I decided to go for an amateur radio license.
As it turned out, it would be another 15 years before the bug bit me again, and I became an amateur radio operator with the call sign, WA2RVU, which I hold to this day. To my mind, the amateur radio fraternity is much like a college fraternity, only on a worldwide basis. We all seem to make instant friends with the many contacts we make all over the globe. I have spoken to amateurs in South Africa where the temperature was in the 90s, when outside my Hamilton window the snow was six inches deep and the temperature in the teens. I spent a few minutes conversing with the late Larry Ferrari of WFIL fame, a fellow amateur, and with numerous stations from Great Britain to South America.
Amateur radio: An absolutely fascinating fraternity of men and women.
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Anyone interested in Mercer County history can view my Web site, “Tom Glover’s Hamilton,” at (www.glover320.blogspot.com).
NOTE: Born and raised in Hamilton, Tom Glover has had a lifelong interest in history and newspapers. Past president of the Hamilton Township Historical Society, he is an archivist on local history at the Hamilton Township Public Library.