Even 8 watts and a dipole can take one far farther than we know, anytime we push that mike button. 5 miles, 500 miles, 5000 miles or 30 years, it can make time travel possible! -Bill Davis, QST magazine (December 2001)
Bill Davis and I sit at his kitchen table eating ice cream, peaches, and shortbread. Gizmo, the gray wide-eyed house cat sits comfortably on the floor. “Cats and radio seem to go together,” Bill says. When Bill is downstairs in “The Ham Shack,” the basement where he operates his amateur radio station, K0AWU, Gizmo sometimes sits on his lap.
A self-proclaimed tinkerer,’ Bill has built two radio towers that stand tall in the middle of milkweed, green beans, zucchini, and chives. “I only grow things that are okay if they’re trampled,” Bill’s wife Pat Davis says. “If there’s trouble, it’s up and down, up and down the towers.”
Today, there are 3 million ham (amateur radio) operators in the world. Bill started his interest in the hobby at 14 years old after reading a Boys Life magazine story. In this fantasy, some kids his age were able to find evil pirates through the signals on a shortwave radio they listened to in their attic. “I liked how they were able to use radio to get the bad guys,” Bill remembers.
Bill bought his first receiver from Sears and Roebuck. He built a transmitter and learned Morse code. “I used a knife on the kitchen table. I used the blade of the knife as a key, tapping on the tabletop, learning to send Morse code with my Boy Scout manual in front of me. And then it came through as a symphony of signals out of that radio.”
“As a kid, I had never traveled too far outside Marshall, Missouri. I only knew farming.” Bill says. “Ham radio opened my eyes to new cultures and people – noble laureates, astronomers, physicians, airline pilots, and farmers too – all with the common interest of radio.”
Downstairs in the basement, there are voices in slow-motion coming through the static on the single sideband radio. “A bit like Donald Duck, right?” Bill laughs.
“It’s weird who you run into and how you run into them. It’s a lot like fishing: You throw a line out – like a CQ – and you never know who you might hook,” Bill says.
Bill sits in his cushioned office chair, holding the transceiver microphone close to his mouth. “CQ, CQ this is K0AWU, Grand Rapids, Minnesota.” He responds to a call from Fort Lucie, Florida. This man’s name is Al. Bill hands me the mike. “How did you first get started? Over,” I stutter through the static.
Al talks about beginning amateur radio when he was in the Air Force in the 1950s. “I’m curious,” I say to Al, clicking the mike, “Can you tell me about one of the most interesting conversations you’ve had on amateur radio. Over.”
Al tells a story about a soldier on a ship coming back from Vietnam who answered his radio call. The soldier wanted Al to get in touch with his wife. “The amount of cuss words comin’ out of that woman’s mouth was crazy. She thought it was a hoax,” Al says. The soldier asked Al to tell his wife about the two white dogs that [they] share together. “Then there were lots of tears,” Al remembers. “The woman cried and cried to me over the phone, knowing that I talked to her husband. Over.”
Bill’s basement is full of radio equipment, amateur radio awards, airplane posters and QSL cards. “[QSL cards] are written confirmations of a conversation,” Bill says. Bill’s walls are decorated with QSL cards. His goal is to talk to all 50 states at a frequency of 2 Meters. Right now, he is missing Alaska and Nevada. Bill has had over 14,000 conversations since 2000. He has talked to 90 different countries, including 27 contacts in Slovenia and 2 contacts in the Canary Islands.
Conversation in amateur radio is called rag-chew. “Ham radio is like the Sunday kitchen table. There are some issues that generally aren’t discussed,” Bill states. “But depending on who you’re talking to, the conversations can be wide ranging. Much of ham radio has to do with just listening to the conversations of others. That is the magic of roving the bands,” Bill says.