“The Ham Shack”

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.”

Bill as a Novice

“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.

Bill and Pat Davis

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 Davis' Radio Towers
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.

QSL Card (for Amateur Radio)

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.



11 Responses to ““The Ham Shack””

To preserve the StoryCorps mission and experience for our readers and participants, comments are subject to the StoryCorps Terms of Service. Comments may be held for moderation or removed if deemed offensive or off-topic. Please do not resubmit your comment if you don't see it right away, it will be approved as soon as possible. Thank you.

  • Great entry! There’s definitely a lot of commonality in the ethos of ham radio and that of StoryCorps… The rag-chew of a lifetime

    Comment from Nick on September 17, 2008 at 3:22 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Wow! What an eye opener this is. All these years I have known of Uncle Bill’s passion for radio, yet not really KNOWN about it. How fascinating! It does remind me of pre-blog and pre-chat kinds of things. I share your fascination for talking to people from other cultures. It is nice to learn more about your long standing interest and of our common interest! I sooooo enjoyed the article! Love you, Tammy

    Comment from Tammy Lambrecht on September 14, 2008 at 8:23 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Congratulations Bro! Remembering many years ago when you would get fancy bamboo QSL cards as well as cards from all over the world. I always thought it was very neat. I enjoyed your article. Good job! Hope it gets aired in the not too distant future.

    Comment from Chuck Davis on September 14, 2008 at 8:02 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • What great photographs, Alex!

    Comment from Chaela on September 14, 2008 at 4:47 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Well done, AK!!! And Bill, thanks for opening your home and your heart to StoryCorps!

    Comment from sara esrick on September 13, 2008 at 6:29 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Cool article Uncle Bill. Aunt Pat – don’t let him trample to much of your garden. Miss you guys and hope you head to Missouri soon.

    Comment from Wendy Davis on September 12, 2008 at 8:36 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • I love it!

    …it’s almost like a rudimentary precursor to blogging. I can imagine a similar story sixty years from now where a nostalgic blogger reminisces about the days of dial up modems and net neutrality.

    Comment from Scott Hamann on September 11, 2008 at 3:18 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Nice photos at the top there!

    Comment from Mike on September 11, 2008 at 1:08 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Wow . . . I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes. I’m Bill’s not-so-little sister. I can remember that guy locking himself in his bedroom for hours on end; the excitement when he spoke with some far away place . . . at first in Morse Code and then by voice; the friends that he made from distant places that were like the people next door to him. I also have a feeling of awe for all of the years he has maintained this passion; respect for Pat’s (his wife) support of all of his ‘stuff’; and lots of nostalgia for those long ago years. He’d be proud to know that at least I remember SOS in Morse Code . . . I did retain something! Love you Big Bro!

    Comment from Carolyn Jiles on September 11, 2008 at 11:02 am - Reply to this Comment
  • How great to learn more about our friend Bill! Now I’m even more impressed by what a dedicated listener/member he is to KAXE when he’s got a whole WORLD of radio in his basement!

    Comment from Heidi Holtan on September 11, 2008 at 10:10 am - Reply to this Comment
  • Alex,

    This is REALLY interesting post. I’m getting excited to join you at the end of this leg of your trip.

    Comment from Carl Scott on September 11, 2008 at 7:07 am - Reply to this Comment

Leave a Reply


  • Major Funding Provided By

  • National Broadcast Sponsors

  • National Partners

    NPR American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress