My Beam Crashes Down in an Ice Storm (Timber!)
The antenna is probably the most important single piece of a CB'ers radio station. A good antenna system can make the difference between being a "player" or just being an observer on the sidelines. Putting together a first class antenna system isn't cheap however. Besides the cost for the antenna itself, you need to add in the cost for mast, mounts, associated hardware, and guy wires. These costs tend to increase proportionately as the antennas get larger and higher up in the air. Those of us who were not so financially independent often took shortcuts in one area or another in order to concentrate on the areas which would make the biggest improvement in signal. After all, that was the name of the game back in the 1970's. This is the story of a lesson, learned the hard way, of what shortcuts not to make if you want your antenna to remain in the air.
I put up my first outside antenna in the summer of 1974 right after I got my first 23 channel set, the Pace 223. This antenna was nothing big or fancy, just a homemade whip cut to be a 1/4 wave in length and mounted on a 2X2 wooden pole, the sum of which was secured to the soffit of my house by an ordinary stainless steel hose clamp, which had three holes drilled in it, and attached to the soffit by standard 1/2 inch long wood screws. All of these parts I had managed to scrounge from my father's leftover hardware stash in the garage, which meant that it didn't cost me anything. My mother was not all that happy about me attaching antennas to the outside of the house. But I figured that if I started out small, and then gradually raise it up a little at a time, hopefully she wouldn't notice. The original homemade whip was eventually replaced with a homemade 1/4 wave ground plane which I had made from the parts of a 5/8th wave antenna that Steve had given me after he had burned it out. These were feeble antennas, to say the least, but not having much in the way of spare cash, I was forced to make due with little more than scrap parts and my creative ingenuity.
My antenna system would gradually improve over the next few years. Thanks to Blue Bandit, who finally talked my mother into allowing me to put up a "real" antenna and who also donated 20' of steel mast which just allowed the bottom of the antenna to clear the roof of my small single story ranch house, I now had a 1/2 wave ground plane. Then some months later, I replaced it with an Avanti Astro Plane. Finally, in 1975, a Hustler "Trumpet" 5/8th wave found a home at the top of my mast. Each change in antennas brought about a bit of an improvement in that all-important signal. But even though my antenna system grew bigger and better, it was still attached to the soffit of the house by the very same hose clamp which had held my original homemade whip. You might think that I was tempting fate with such a feeble mount, but normally the antenna didn't whip around all that much in the wind. The mast also had some extra support by being sunk in the ground about 2 feet or so, so there wasn't really a lot of stress on the hose clamp "mount". As a result, I had grown pretty complacent with this setup. Even as the fall and winter wind storms came through and claimed some other people's antennas, mine had suffered only the very slightest amount of bending. But that did prompt me to add a "backup" to the hose clamp mount. I hung a short section of chain around the mast and secured the ends to the soffit as well. That way, if the hose clamp were to break, the chain would hold the mast and keep it from falling. So it was that I had unknowingly set the stage for what would lead to my first and only antenna loss at the hands of the weather. Did you ever notice that antenna problems always seemed to happen in the middle of winter, when you least wanted to be working on them?
Jump forward another year and a half. It was now the summer of 1976, and Steve had given me an old Hy-Gain 3 element beam antenna in pretty good condition. I had also obtained an Alliance U-100 TV antenna rotator for free from my tech school class. I then decided to take the plunge into the world of beam antennas. I took down the 5/8th wave ground planet, and put up the new beam. I had to add some mast for the elements to clear the roof, so I was now up to about 30 feet of mast. The beam worked well, and it made a noticeable improvement in my signal, plus allowed me to reject signals that I didn't want to hear, and get directional bearings on jamming stations. It didn't take me very long to become dependant on the beam. I didn't ever want to go back to an omni. But as I was about to find out that fall, a beam antenna is a much larger target for the wind, than a vertical omni.
That fall, when the seasonal wind once again blew through, one particularly strong storm bent my mast back at about a 20 degree angle. I had to hacksaw the bottom 2 feet off of that section of mast and put it back up again. I had thought about utilizing guy lines, but my mother was adamantly against my attaching any more "doo-ji-friggies" to the house. For the next year or so, I dealt with the storms, and would have to shorten the mast yet again. Then in 1977, I came up with a guy line solution, which would not need to be attached to the house. I took 4 nylon lines attached at the rotator, and passed them through two horizontal bars which I had clamped to the mast in an "X" pattern at the midpoint of the mast, and then tied the ropes back to the mast at the soffit mount. This is similar to what they do on a sailboat to re-enforce the mast. This seemed to do the trick for a while, as the mast seemed a little more resistant to bending. But now the strongest force of the wind had been shifted from the mast to my hose clamp mount. Sure enough, after a few more similar storms, the clamp finally had enough and snapped. Fortunately the backup chain did its thing and prevented the antenna from completely falling. At this point, you would think that I would've ran right out and fixed the mount. But since it was now the coldest part of the winter of now 1978, I was not happy with the thought of having to do work on the antenna in the snow and cold, so the procrastinator in me won out, and I left it go, thinking that the chain would hold it until I got a break in the weather. It might have too, but then we had an ice storm.....
Normally, we didn't get many ice storms in my area. Precipitation was usually in the form of either snow or rain. But this time we had a significant accumulation of ice. The first sign that ice had begun to accumulate on my antenna, was a sharp rise in SWR, something that never happened in any other weather. At the time, I figured that there would be a light coating on the antenna, but nothing to really worry about. Further allaying my concern was the fact that the wind was conspicuously absent from this particular storm. But what I hadn't considered was all that extra hardware which I had attached to the mast for the guy lines. All of that stuff was also collecting ice. The end result was that the whole shooting match was getting heavier. Since the hose clamp had broken, the antenna mast had moved away from the house slightly until the chain tightened. This gave it a pronounced lean, which allowed the extra weight of the ice to exert an increasing force against the chain. Eventually the force became so great that it pulled one of the wood screws holding the chain, right out of the soffit. The next thing I knew, my coax and rotor control cable were suddenly being pulled out of my window rather rapidly. Luckily for me, I had a lot of slack, or my radio would have gone for an unscheduled ride.
Some people believe that Murphy's Law is just an irrational superstition. For those who have never heard of Murphy, Murphy is the originator of "Murphy's Law" which, in its simplest form (and there are MANY corollaries), states that "Anything that can go wrong, WILL". Well Murphy was definitely hanging out with me on that fateful night as it would turn out. As I ran outside to see what had happened (While it was still freezing raining fairly steadily), I was met with yet another complication. Not only had the beam fallen, but it had fallen in an arc perfectly parallel with the back of my house in the only possible path capable of snagging one of the house's power lines. I mean what were the chances of that? On the one hand, the power line had saved the beam from sure destruction at the hands of the unforgiving and quite frozen ground. But on the other hand, I now had to deal with a possible electrocution or fire hazard, as I was standing in puddles of water and everything around was covered in wet ice. I immediately disconnected all of the coax and rotor cables from my equipment. I then called a guy down the street, who worked for the electric company to see if he had any suggestions or help. He was not much help unfortunately, so I called Windbreaker, a member of the Channel 6 group, who was also a physicist. He immediately told me to stay away from it until he could come over and see it. He came over soon after and, after assessing the situation, devised a clever rope lasso which he flung over the wire and managed to loop over the element of the antenna which was snagged in the wires. When he pulled on the rope, the element popped off the wire and the antenna came the rest of the way down with a resounding crash. I was immensely grateful and equally impressed with his logical and creative solution to the problem, and relieved that a potential hazard had been averted.
I reviewed the aftermath on the following day. It was not a pretty picture, but it could have been much worse. One of the elements of the beam had bent on impact, but I was able to bend it back without snapping it. I then leaned the mast and the antenna on top of a 6' wooden step ladder to keep it from further damage. I hooked up the coax and checked that the SWR was still acceptable, and I hoped I could use it this way for the short term. But I was not prepared for just how poorly I was getting out with a now semi-horizontal beam barely 6 feet off the ground. The Channel 13 guys, who I was now running with, could barely hear me. I was pretty much stuck talking to the guys in the immediate area. I could not deal with this for very long. With the weather far too cold and with snow all over the ground and, more importantly, the roof, there was no way that I would be putting the beam back up any time soon. But I had to do something. It was absolutely killing me being a "grasser". So I scraped up an extra length of mast and put my old 5/8th wave vertical back up quick and dirty, just so I could be heard again. I actually have the picture of my hastily rigged antenna, leaning ever so slightly on the 12' foot piece of slightly bent mast that I had as a spare.
Some time afterward, when the weather broke for spring, I put the beam back up, but this time I used a steel mount attached to the soffit, which was quite a bit stronger, and I thru-bolted it, rather than relying on wood screws. This setup lasted until 1983, when I would put up a tower and put an end, once and for all, to my cheesy homebrewed mounting system.