Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The DX Bug Bites

Everyone probably has a story about how looking for DX got them hooked. Somehow I think its innate to want to see how far the string will stretch. Even kids with no experience with radio who get a pair of walkie talkies will soon start trying to see how far they can talk, and some will even start trying to find ways to make that distance greater and greater.

For me, there were two seeds. One was the family listening to the radio together ( yes, folks did do that as a family back in the thirties through the mid fifties before there was cable or even color tv, or for some any tv at all) Listening to The Grand Old Opry from WSM in Nashville while we lived in Central Texas did not initially seem like a big deal to me in 1952. Since my dad did it almost every Saturday night, it just seemed like the thing to do with nothing particularly unusual about it.

But the real seed came when I got my first crystal radio. My dad was taking a radio repair correspondence course at the same time he was working at a tire plant and going to carpenter apprentice school and farming ( How DID he do all that?) I had been watching him do his training kit building and was mesmerized by the rising solder smoke at first, then by the radios he was building as part of the course. I think more to keep my hands off his stuff, I was "helped" earn money to buy my own radio kit...A Remco Crystal Receiver.

As kids will do, I had almost worn out the Sears catalog page that included the picture and descriptive paragraph of the kit. Finally after saving up allowance money, egg gathering money, lawn mowing money, etc, I had come up with the $3.95 (!!). I was not looking forward to the long wait for the kit to come in the mail, remembering how long it had taken for the Nautilus submarine I had ordered off a cereal box. My dad had good news about that, however. He told me that the Sears store in Waco had them in stock and he would stop by and pick it up for me on his way back from work one day.

It was a bit of a shock when he made the delivery. The picture in the catalog just showed the radio in a plastic case with a simulated loop antenna on top. The box seemed HUGE. Each piece was separate on a cardboard insert and there was the ever present " some assembly required" to be dealt with. There was a coil to be wound, then mounted in the bright yellow plastic cabinet. It was a bit tricky because there was a heavy wire bar that a metal ball rode on that had to slide against the coil. The "dial" on the receiver was a plastic knob with a pin that went through the front panel and moved the ball to made a sliding contact with the coil. Then the crystal diode had to be mounted under two screws.

This was where disaster struck. Not knowing about bending wire leads with a pair of needle nose pliers, I bent the leads with my fingers to make them fit under the mounting screws that would hold it in place, and one broke off right near the body of the diode. If that diode had been a "modern" glass bodied 1N34A or something similar, that would have been fatal. But then the newer diodes have thinner, more flexible leads and probably would not have broken so easily anyway. But this one was some kind of plastic or epoxy bodied thing and my dad was able to save the day by carefully soldering it back on.

The assembly was then quickly completed. There was really very little to do. There were wires from the coil and slider, the diode was mounted, wires from the antenna and ground jacks on the front panel as well as the dual headphone jack for the Bell headphones that came with the kit. All that was left was the "outside" work.

My dad drove a ground stake in the ground right outside the bedroom window. Then came the antenna. I am not sure how much antenna wire came with the kit, maybe 75 feet. I soon experienced something I was to see echoed many times in the future: tangled wire. The roll was some kind of copper, but it apparently had a steel core, like the Copperweld of my future, for when it was unpacked, it immediately sprung out and snarled. I had already experienced wild tangles with kite string and was not happy with this development. It seemed like an hour was spent untangling and stretching the wire from the bedroom into the kitchen, stretching it tight and sliding a piece of metal pipe along it to get all the curls and kinks out!

The antenna was to go outside. My dad already had a long, high wire suspended from the high peak of the roof to a tall pole at the edge of our garden on the east side of the house. He simply used my new antenna wire to string under the eaves of the house and around the side and connected it to his existing antenna which already had to be at least a hundred feet long and thirty or so feet high. I was starting with a monster!

It was time for the test. As was to be the case on many occasions in the future, there was the anxiety and delay in actually trying the thing. Will it work? What will happen? After a little pause, the headphones were plugged in and the antenna and ground wires plugged in on the front panel and the headphones went on the head. I had already been warned not to expect too much because the crystal set had no amplification. All there would be would be the amount of signal provided by the radio station itself. I remember setting the sliding dial in the middle and placing the headphones over my ears. At first I thought there was nothing. But no, there was something faintly coming through. It was a mixture of two stations. By sliding the knob to the right, one came in clearly and pretty loudly. It turns out it was W-A-C-O on 1460 kc ( it was kilocycles in those days). Then with the dial slid a little to the left of center, the other station was clear. That was K-W-T-X on 1230 kc.

I was amazed! Maybe this was the first DX impulse, but then I slid the dial further to the left and I could faintly hear something else under the K-W-T-X signal but could not quite separate it out...and another a little further down. This was about three o'clock in the afternoon. I knew from listening with my dad that more distant stations came in at night so I could hardly wait for the sun to go down to see what would happen. But for the moment, the magic was strong just as things were. I could hear things from something put together at home.

An aside is necessary here, from the "Things I Didn't Know Then" Department: Those two stations were both 1 kilowatt in the day, but at night there were two things that would have reduced their signal strength at our house East of Waco at that time. K-W-T-X reduced power to 250 watts at night then. W-A-C-O switched to a directional antenna at that time that reduced signal in our direction. So what occurred at night really did not have as much to do with night time signals going farther as it did with having less signal from the locals to spread out over the dial with the very low selectivity tuned circuit of the simplest crystal set design there could be.

That night about 8 o clock as I slipped back into the back bedroom where the crystal set was set up on a small table by my bed, I anticipated hearing more stations. And I was not disappointed. While the two stations were not quite as loud, I could hear one more peeping out from under K-W-T-X, Then as I slid the tuner down farther to the left, a signal popped up quite nicely. It was W-B-A-P from Fort Worth, a 50-thousand watt station on 820...and there was yet another one at the very end of the dial that turned out to be W-F-A-A from Dallas on 570 kc. I knew these stations already quite well from tuning around on the Silvertone radio/record player console my folks had.

The next thought would be what would happen after our local stations went off at midnight. ( see, already the bug was biting!!) The big problem was being awake after midnight. At age eight, there was no way I was going to get permission to stay up that late, especially on a school night. I figured at least on the weekend I might get a running start since our family stayed up fairly late Saturday nights listening to the Grand Ol' Opry via WSM. When the others went to bed, I could try to stay awake and slip the headsets on and listen. There were no lights on the radio and of course with the headsets, no sound to wake anyone up. It was a matter of staying awake.

That Saturday night, things went pretty well. As usual, we listened to the Grand Ol Opry Warmup Show after supper, then the show itself making it till the late, late hour of ten o'clock. By stretching bath time and conning the folks out of a late snack of an orange, I had gotten to about 10:45. The problem was, I was really getting sleepy myself. it was eleven by the time everybody was quiet. There was a windup clock with a luminous dial on the table by the bed. I watched it closely, but it seemed like it never moved. I found myself drifting, drifting. Then I was dreaming abut staying awake.

It was not a total failure, however, because something woke me up about 2 o'clock. At first I was sure I had slept through till 5 when the local stations came back on. But close inspection of the clock showed 2 AM. I quietly stretched out my arm and pulled the headphones toward me. I had to be careful because the little radio was so light that pulling on the headphones could pull the whole thing off on the floor. I could not get out of bed because the springs squeaked so much when the load came off them, I was sure the whole house would wake up.

I managed to get situated and slipped the headphones on and heard...nothing. But then I remembered I had had the radio set to W-A-C-O on 1460 and the stations I expected to hear were pretty far down the dial from that. With somewhat trembling fingers, I slid the dial slowly to the left, and surely enough, a signal, faint as it was, appeared in the headphones. I listened to the quiet music being played knowing full well it would probably put me to sleep before I heard what the station was. I didn't drift off, and the announcer helpfully gave the call letters and the time after that first long, long record...it was K-R-L-D on 1080, the 50 kilowatt station in Dallas! It was a "new one" and probably what I had been hearing faintly behind K-W-T-X on 1230 earlier in the evening. There appeared to be something faint in the background. I slid the tuner further to the left and it disappeared. I had expected it to be W-B-A-P, but it was something in the other direction. I went back to the right and there it was, with K-R-L-D mixed over it. You would know, every time the announcer said something that might identify it, the announcer on K-R-L-D would talk, increasing the interference and making it unintelligible. But more than once, the announcer talked about things in San Antonio. I would have to look in the White's Radio Log the next day and try to figure out what it would be...of course it was W-O-A-I.

Tuning further to the left brought no other surprises...W-F-A-A on 820 and W-B-A-P on 570 k/c. No, that's not an inversion of memory. In those days W-B-A-P and W-F-A-A shared 570 and 820. At that time they could not reach an agreement on who would get the 50 kw signal of 820 full time and who would lay claim to the 5 kw signal on 570 k/c. For years and years the two switched back and forth after agreeing who would get what frequency what hours. I can still remember the sound of the cowbell that W-B-A-P rang while leaving one frequency and turning up on the other. It wasn't until sometime in the 70's that the final break was made.

But that did not matter to me at the time. I just took it as the way things were. And for me, that night had been a success...the two stations on 570 and 820 heard completely in the clear with no spreading signal from 1230 and two completely new stations on 1080 and 1200. I slipped off the headphones, let my head heavily hit the pillow and drifted off into dreamland of a future of DX.

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