Thursday, November 19, 2015

DX-ing as a Magical Adventure

             Someone on one of the SWL Facebook groups  of which I am a member said something in a post about one of his "adventures " being magical.  It seems he had heard a station on his main rig, then listened to the same station on a portable while he worked doing something else.  It seemed like magic to him.  There followed several posts echoing that idea.
       That struck a strong chord with me because I have felt the same thing many times over the past fifty plus years of spinning the dials.  Even before I began listening to weak signals through my own first crystal set going back to the times I, as a child, listened to kid's stories broadcast by one of our local stations back in the early fifties, adventure seemed to pour out of that small wood box with lights inside.
       There were radio dramas that let the story play out on the stage inside the mind.  It was limitless. Whether it be The Lone Ranger, Rocky Jones, Space Cadet or even Little Orphan Annie.  I still remember the children's stories broadcast by long defunct KMLW and the wonderful performance of Peter and the Wolf that first introduced me to classical music as a child. ( I still laugh when I see a bassoon!)
       The adventure changed somewhat when my dad was taking a radio-tv repair correspondence course.  He built radios that brought in stations from all over. These were only AM broadcast stations at the time, but the idea of listening to The Grand Ol' Oprey via WSM in Nashville or The Louisiana Hayride from ( I believe) KWKH in Shreveport in our living room just outside Waco, Texas was amazing to the then seven year old.
       As I learned ( and was allowed) to turn the dials of our old standup Silvertone radio I was able to find music and programs that kept me busy on hot afternoons on our small farm.  The radio transported me beyond the confines of that room.  And I must admit, the sounds of that radio along with the drone of the big evaporative cooler that fought the Texas heat long before we could even dream of air conditioning often lulled me into sleep and real dreams,  sometimes guided by what was on the radio.
       But most of all it was the sound of the distant stations brought in at night that really fired my imagination. Maybe it was the exotic sound of the selective fading.  Sometimes there was a bit of angst as the station would fade and my dad would say,
       " Don't worry,  it will fade back up. It will be back in a minute."
       A little later as I sat with my Bell headphones clamped tightly over my ears listening to the faint sounds coming from the Remco crystal set kit the hook was really and truly set. Those faint signals, particularly those I strained to hear after our local stations signed off at midnight, fired the imagination. Somehow, some way what was going on in that distant studio was leaping into the air, traveling miles and miles through the air and being snagged by the wire strung between the peak of the roof of our house to the tall water pipe mast my dad had erected at the back of our garden.
       When I would ask if we could get stronger signals or more distant stations, he would say we might if we added more wire.  So we added more wire along the side of the house and further out beyond the garden to the chicken houses.   We must have had over 250 feet of wire ranging from about 20 feet to maybe 35 feet high.
       While adding the wire seemed to aggravate the situation of making the local stations spread out on the dial of the crystal set,  it did help the signals coming into the six tube radio he had built as a kit that came with his training course.  And after the local stations signed off,  when I would sneak the headphones onto my head in the midst of the night,  there were more stations to be heard on my little Remco.  The ones I remember were WOAI from San Antonio, KRLD and WFAA from Dallas and WBAP from Fort Worth.  There were others I just don't remember and at seven or eight years old I had no concept of logging.
       Every time I would put on those headphones,  the idea that sound was coming from them that was sent from some distant place was being transmitted to my ears was truly magic. Even if the stations were the same as the ones heard before,  it was still the same.
       The level of magic increased over the years. First it was listening to my Watterson table radio that had belonged to my grandfather,  hearing stations from Dallas, Houston or San Antonio.  Then listening at night to signals from Chicago, St Louis, Cincinnati and various points in Mexico.  Then came the shortwave days with the sounds of England, Spain, Switzerland, Ecuador, Australia.
       On a Facebook post in one of the groups made up of short wave listeners I have recently joined, someone noted that same thing.  A distant station was heard on a receiver that was on an outdoor antenna that was later heard on a small portable while he was doing something around the house.  He noted that it seemed magical that he could be hearing something from a distant land with no intervening wires.  Others soon posted on the same entry of their similar feelings.
       What is it about radio that brings these feelings?  Perhaps it is not just the radio itself,  but something that still lives within some of us.  A sense of wonder at something special,  the ability to recognize and enjoy something for its own value, and somehow not become jaded to its reappearance over time.
       There are some in the amateur radio community who work DX and contests and such.  I am among them.  But some have approached the ham radio hobby, and perhaps the SWL hobby in a big rush and work or log countries in a hurry, win contests, collect QSL cards,  trade equipment it seems every other week and burn out on it quickly, losing interest. 
       Others seem to savor the experiences, listening for programs,  studying the prop, finding things to tune for even when the bands are poor. I think perhaps there is a difference within people in how they react to experiences in general,  not just the radio hobby, that has something to do with it. It is not a "competition" except perhaps with one's own skill level.  It is an enjoyment of what is!
       There is nothing to match the thrill of being a kid and hearing Tokyo for the first time on 25 meters on a morning before school. The difference for some is that it is noted, then tossed aside with no interest in doing it again.  But for some of us, every time that signal comes out of a speaker or headphones,  some of that thrill comes rushing back.
       The same goes with working DX or hearing it on the ham bands.  There are literally thousands and thousands of hams in Japan,  but somehow hearing a JA or JH or JO station come back when my hand pulls back from the key never diminishes.  Even just the idea of pulling a signal that someone launched into the air from their backyard with a small box in their home has never lost that shine.
       From the other side,  I had a moment while working at my first radio station back in the 1960's. I had been playing records on the radio on a Saturday afternoon, answering the request line, "playing the hits" when I happened to turn and look out the back window of the control room and saw two of the four towers of the station's antenna array in a new light.  What I was doing in that control room where the meters were dancing, the phone lights were flashing and Rock and Roll was coming out of the monitor speaker at a level that was probably near the pain threshold was being sent from that room into the transmitter room through the window to my left, the glowing tubes were generating the signal that was going to the towers outside, where it was leaping into space and reaching out to touch those very people who had been calling on the phone asking for their song.  It was also reaching out and touching hundreds, perhaps thousands as far as 150 miles away.  It was both a sobering and wonderful moment.
       Its something to think about when we spin the dials. There is indeed a magic in what we experience.  Somewhere, in a distant place,  what we are hearing is being created by someone in a studio or spoken into a microphone or keyed into a transmitter in a home somewhere.  It is leaping into the air, flying through space, bouncing around and sweeping by our antenna leaving a little mark of its passage as it continues to fly yet farther. What could be more magical than that? 
       No matter what the content of the program from a broadcast station  or transmission from the radio amateur, the effect is the same.  Something created in a distant land has come to us. Those who recognize it are blessed with a true experience.  Those who note it and let it go miss part of it.
       There are other wonders that come along with our hobby.  Someone else noted when commenting on a kit receiver someone had purchased and was enjoying that looking inside it was sort of like looking at the person who wired it.  Listening to a song is like looking inside of the person who wrote it or sang it.  Looking at a painting like looking into the soul of the artist.  Reading a story or a poem is like hearing the thoughts of a writer.
       Perhaps all of this is not so much just about radio or cold, technical facts.  The enjoyment of the hobby is just like the enjoyment folks get from actually " seeing" or "hearing" anything that goes on around us in the form of art or just life.  Perhaps we should be thankful we were given the ability to see what others might just pass over.
      Perhaps a little philosophy has crept into what some would see as a cold, technical geeky hobby!
Good DX and Happy Listening.

1 comment:

  1. Roland, i understand what you are saying--it's never been a competition for me, rather always a sense of wonder at what was happening--it seems when radio comes to a very young person, their lifelong love affair never seems to go away--there is always a magic element in what comes out of that box--those kid shows on BCB back in the '40s and '50s appealed to me, and tuning for them in the afternoon hooked me---i have never stopped spinning the knobs, and never stopped being amazed at what comes through the phones--for me it will always be magic--

    i enjoy the internet, but it will never replace the thrill of tuning the bands with a real radio--i suppose the best part of the internet is being able to find old time radio program sites, and there listen to or download all those old shows which originally drew me into this amazing hobby--