Month: October 2010

Skip on Six

Earlier this year Sue and I made the trek to Omaha to pick up our refugee friends. Law Law, having just started a new job could not come, but Ta Blue and the kids came back here for the summer. The trip was very long but for the most part uneventful. Bringing them back home went smoothly as well, but during the ride back Sue and I got stuck in a long traffic jam on I-80 in Iowa; the result, we found out later, of a pretty nasty accident.

At one point, while siting there, slowly creeping forward, I had the idea to ask one of the big rig truckers who we found ourselves along side  if he had heard what the hold up was. Much to my astonishment he replied that he didn’t have a CB so no, he didn’t know either. This surprised me about as much as it would have if he had told me that his truck also drove without a motor.

Coming from a family where both my father and step father worked in the trucking industry, a CB had always been around; my father had one hooked up in his living from till the day he died, and he had retired years before that. Truckers and CBs went together like peanut butter and jelly; that this guy didnt have one really amazed me.

As we sat there waiting to get to the exit where they detoured everyone off the highway I gave myself a mental dope slap and asked myself why didn’t I have a CB with me?

Years back I had a GE HELP portable CB radio that I picked up at the AMES department store in Agawam. It was a basic no frills unit but it was cheap and worked fairly well. I had it in my car for a number of years till I passed it on to my sister one year when she came through town on her way from Buffalo to El Paso. With most of the ride ahead and a baby in the vehicle with her I wanted to make sure that she had the means to reach out if she ran into trouble; cell phones were not even in the picture for average folks back then. Fortunately the ride went smoothly but she did use the radio to talk with truckers during the trip and they did a great job of keeping an eye on her and keeping her company along the way. I am not sure why, other than a lack of funds, but I never replaced the radio.

I really used to like listening to radios we had around as a kid, from my first AM radio, our families shortwave, and later the CB. Most every evening, just after dinner, my mother would turn on a portable multi-band radio to the shortwave location and listen to the news from Radio Nederland. Sometimes during the day, or when she was finished at night, I would take the radio to my room, sit on my bed and slowly turn the dial on the shortwave and listen to voices from around the world. Many of the broadcasts were in languages I could not understand but I remained fascinated just the same that I could hear them. At night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, I would press my ear to the tiny speaker on my little AM transistor radio as I slowly turned the dial;hunting for far away signals tucked between the local stations.

My Oma had in her dining room in Holland a old tube type tabletop multi-band radio who’s dial was labeled with countries from around the world. I was fascinated how with a simple twist of the knob we could here music from across Europe.

Some of my classmates had Ham radios and I quietly was in awe listening to their updates of whom and where they had made contact; I could hear people on my radios – they could SPEAK with them! And, of course. back when I was a teenager in the 70’s CBs were all the rage. You couldn’t find a moment of silence on any of the 23 channels as everybody and his brother was slapping CB slang back and forth in their best truckers drawl.

Where my father lived in the later years of his life he was in close proximity to Interstate 91 and we could hear the truckers on his CB as they went through. He also had bar and trucker buddies with whom he would talk back and forth with while driving or with the radio he set up as a base in the house. Over the years though the airwaves became more quiet, and his buddies either slipped or passed away. Although the home base unit remained in the front room, I don’t think he turned it at all in the last couple years of his life. After he passed I placed the radio and dc power source in a box, wrapped the cord for the GE Sentry antenna up, and stored them away.

Sitting in traffic that day on I-80 in Iowa, my mind searched the multitude of boxes in the basement for clues where the radios and stuff were tucked away. CBs, how had I forgotten the CBs? I still had a desire to play with radios, in fact it was only a few months before that I had picked up the ARRL’s Ham Radio License Manual, who knew when I would be licensed to play on a Ham radio, but I could at least get started with a simple CB!

So after we got home I located most of what I already had for CB eqipment from where it was stashed away and set out to get on the air. I brought everything out to my pick up truck, rested the radio on the front passenger seat while I connected the power cord, microphone and antenna then placed the unit on the hump on the floor.

The first time I scanned the dial it was like walking through a ghost town; what had once been a vibrant community now appeared to have been reduced to a static wasteland. At first I wondered if my radio was even working.

Living near an interstate though, once I got to channel 19 I was able to hear some of the truckers as they made their way through the area; many looking for directions to the local truck stop. Sitting in my driveway I keyed up the mic and asked for a radio check. It was a few moments before I got a response then a voice came over the speaker proclaiming “Its working driver”.

“Roger that”, I replied, “How am I sounding on that end?”

“Loud and Proud” was his response.

“10-4, thank you”.

A big old smile spread across my face.

Chatting back and forth with other folks I made contact with that day I felt just like I did when I was a kid running through the neighborhood with my friend clutching my first hand held walkie talkie.

In the days that followed I experimented with transmitting and receiving as well as read every post I could on the net at every radio forum I could find.

By law Citizen Band radios are restricted on how powerful they are allowed to be and as such your range will be limited. There are a number of ways CB’ers have worked around those limits, not all exactly legal, one way though to get the most from your radio that is legal is to get the best antenna you can. You can buy the best radio money on the market but if it is hooked up to a cheapo antenna you’d be lucky to reach further than, basically, around the block.  The GE Sentry antenna that I had in my setup worked, folks nearby could hear me and I could hear them, but if I was go to get all I could out of what I had I knew that I was going to have to upgrade my equipment.

Although the CB is no where near as popular as it once was, there is still a decent market out there; mostly driven I think by truck drivers, but there are still radio hobbyist out there that play with them as well. So there is no shortage of equipment to chose from. Of course with my present limited budget I was going to have to find alternative avenues to supply my needs.

God Bless Craigslist. Although you do find on occasion newer items offered at higher prices much of what I see is from folks cleaning out closets and such of old equipment and willing to part with it cheap.

The first antenna I found was a Wilson 500, also known as a “Little Wil”. it is a small; about the same length as what I was using, but more modern antenna, going for about $40 on Amazon, I got one for $15 on Craigslist. Though not a great antenna I did note some improvement. My next find was a Wilson 2000 Trucker, its about a $60 antenna; I found mine for $20 – with a Uniden 76XL radio included.

The 2000 had been owned by a guy who used to drive a tow truck and it came with one of those mounts that with bolts clamped onto the extended mirrors of his truck. My pick up does not have those types of mirrors so I was going to have to find another way to mount it in order to use it (the magnetic mount on the Little Wil is not the kind that lets you change to a different antenna mast) which I did and a future post will go into more detail on that.

As much fun as I was having though listening to the radio when was driving, there was still a big gap when I could listen. I do not make a living out of driving and unless I was in my pick up running errands or whatever I could not use it. Obviously what I needed was a Home Base.

So down in the basement where I keep a second computer I cleared up a little area on an adjacent shelf unit and placed a radio there along with a 12 volt power supply I had. I mounted a small antenna onto the roof of the garage and with a 50 foot length of less than stellar quality, but cheap, coax from Radio Shack connected it to a radio in the basement.

At about this time I also made a friend with someone who had been advertising radios on Craigslist. Meeting him was one of those moments of synchronicity; I had been wanting to meet someone who could give me pointers and guidance in my guest to set up my mobile and home based units, a Elmer is what I believe they call it in Ham circles.

Not only did he give me some pointers but also loaned me some equipment to help me get started. One item he loaned me was a 102 inch steel whip antenna which greatly improved my listening power.

About a week or so ago while sitting at my computer and slowly turning the dial I came to channel 6 and heard a mish mash of voices coming through the speaker like I had never heard before. The volume of the audio signals from the various voices would randomly go up and down as their signals waxed and waned. It took me a few moments but after one of the voices made note of where they were broadcasting from it dawned on me what I was hearing: ‘Skip’

Skip, I learned from my forum studies, is when the signals that are usually limited to only a few miles bounce, or Skip, off the atmosphere and come down hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of miles away.  The voices I heard were coming from mostly Texas, but I also heard Oklahoma,  a voice claiming to be from California,  even Iowa.

I marveled at the sounds of all these people coming through my speaker and it threw my mind back in time to my childhood as I listened to the radios in my room late at night.

With CBs when someone talks everyone else pretty much has to just listen; unless one of those other people you’re listening to locally has a much more powerful radio and then blasts over the other guys signal. With the skip I heard coming in the voices were almost layered; not one over the other but all at the same time and I had to tune my ears to pick out one sound over the others to understand. It reminded me of the mish mash of sounds and voices you here in the Beatles song Revolution 9 from the White Album.

Occasionally I would hear voices locally around here communicating or attempting to communicate with those distant voices. Surprisingly during some of the conversations I could hear the distant signals better than I could hear the ones more local.

This inspired me to make use of another Craigslist find. I had recently obtained from a guy two identical base antennas, not the best quality but brand new, as well as two 75 foot lengths of good quality coax cable – all for just $40. I was also allowed to remove from the lodge a 21 foot pole; what had once been the upper support from a chain link fence, with the intention of making it the mast for one of the antennas.

Right now it is still in a test phase, with the pole resting on the ground and fastened to the building with one of the two antennas on top, but it already works better than the 102 inch whip mounted a little lower. I cant wait for the weather to improve a bit so I can put it even higher. And next year I might even take the other antenna and mount it at the top of one of the huge pine trees that are along side and dwarf my garage!

I am now not only able to hear and broadcast even better than before, but I am hearing even more skip and on other channels as well. Sitting in my basement, with the aid of some wire, a stick in the air, and an old Cobra 2000 voices of faces I may never meet speak to and with me; like old freinds sharing a secret fascination most everyone else has forgotten. The mere fact that I am there with them includes me into their exclusive club. Common citizens run about with cell phones pressed to their ears; limited, for the most part, to talking to or reaching out to just one person at a time. While with our little radio’s we can reach a multitude of individuals at one time.

After the trucker on I-80 in Iowa  and I finished chatting he closed the window on his truck and dialed somebody on his cellphone. Maybe it was his dispatcher, or a friend near a radio or tv who might be able to tell him what was up. If only he had had a simple CB radio he would have known way in advance to pull off the highway and saved himself time and aggravation. I surely dont plan on ever going on a road trip without one from now on.

As we get older we have a tendency to try and reclaim our youth. Some guys go out and buy sports cars; a nice convertible perhaps. Well, I already have one of those, had it for about 8 years now and it wasn’t a middle aged splurge either. However I could see CBs and eventually Ham radios filling in that void. I can not describe it, why listening to faint signals through a static haze gives me such a thrill, but I am so glad that I have the opportunity to experience it again.

All because of a traffic jam.

Ya know, I wonder if one of those voices I hear skipping accros the heavens from Iowa is a trucker riding down route I-80.