Junk Or Fancy?          

What kind of equipment did you run back in the day, and which was REALLY more fun? 


One night, as I found myself dialing around the typically empty local CB channels while using my Yaesu FT-757, I started to daydream, like I frequently do, about "the good ol' days" in CB.  As I thought about the people I had known back then and the fun times that we all had, I began to wonder what it would have been like if I had a rig like a '757 back in the mid 70's. A rig equipped with all modes, a frequency coverage extending continuously from 1 to 30 Mhz, a built-in adjustable 100 watt power output, and connected to a large beam antenna at the top of a 70' tower.  Ok, so my ideal radio dream world is taking place about 10 years before the technology was available to make this radio possible and, more importantly, affordable.  But this is my daydream, so I'll make the rules ok!  Anyway, if I did have a rig like that back then, surely I would have been the envy of all of my peers.  There wouldn't have been a mode that I didn't have, or a channel where I couldn't go.  The extra power and antenna gain would have enabled me to override most of my rivals and dispatch those occasional troublemakers post haste back to their own channels.  While it's usually good to be the king, I also wondered just how lonely it might have been at the top. Theoretically, if I could have a rig like this, then others could too, so it's likely that I would not have been alone in the ownership of such spiffy equipment.  They also say that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so I'm not sure that I would have been mature enough to handle a setup like this back then (Not to mention giving my mother a major conniption).  After all, you wouldn't want a new 16 year old driver behind the wheel of a Lamborghini would you? Still, while it would have been fun to have such a station back then, I also wondered whether a great many of my fond memories from that time period occurred as the result of me specifically NOT having top-of-the-line equipment and instead having to gather together a hodgepodge of second-hand pieces, experimenting with projects like the Poor Man's VFO, and learning how to make the best out of a less than optimal situation.

Most of the "young'uns" in my area, started off in CB rather humbly.  Our growth in the hobby was both gradual and incremental. It was like a series of unwritten goals which we all seemed to set our sights on, and when we reached one of them, we promptly set a new goal.  Most of what drove each of us to meet those increasingly tougher goals, was peer pressure, along with the natural tendency to want to "keep up with the Joneses". What kept us from simply jumping right to the top of the line stuff, rather than following the slow incremental path that we did, was simply a lack of the required funds.  CB radio equipment was much more expensive back then, especially when you consider inflation.   We were also young teens then, and our earning potential was less than ideal.  Since we also wanted instant gratification, rather than patiently putting aside small amounts of money in the hope of eventually buying that spiffy 23 channel rig in 2 years (Which seemed like a lifetime back then), most chose to go the incremental route.  We felt that it was preferable to taste the "better life" a little at a time, rather than having to wait for the whole nut to come much later.  Consequently, the meager amount of money that we had at any given time, could only buy limited capability equipment.  Low power, few (or one) channels, and small, self-contained antennas.  In other words, walkie-talkies.  Nonetheless, we were all relatively satisfied at a particular level, until one of us rose above it. Then the rest of us would put on the full court press until we had caught up.  Lots of lawns were mowed,  many newspapers delivered, and much begging of the parental units would commence on the road toward that next goal.  Since most of us also got money during the Christmas holidays, this was a common time for the bigger jumps in our equipment and our standings in the CB arena.  

Our earliest group started with a bunch of us kids running around with 100 mW single channel "Space Patrol"-type Walkie-Talkies.  These were simple units with little more than an on-off switch, a PTT button, a telescopic 2 or 3' antenna, and maybe a Morse Code key.  But they served their purpose, at least initially. During that time, we learned which rooms in the house we had to sit in in order to hear the other stations the clearest. We also learned that we could reach farther distances when we were outside in a clear open place.  We also started experimenting with extending the length of the built-in walkie-talkie antennas (driven by the simplistic "more is better" principle), by tying random lengths of wire to it, and discovering whether or not it noticeably improved range. Despite our reckless, "hunt and peck" style of experimenting, we were fairly happy with our state of equipment and status - at least for the moment.  Then, introduction to other CB'ers with higher power equipment and greater range, drove our group to want to upgrade as well. The next step was to higher quality, multiple channel 100 mW Walkie-Talkies, such as the Midland 13-428 or a Radio Shack TRC-25. I remember what a thrill it was to operate on a channel other than 14 for the first time.  While there was no difference in range between the channels, it just "felt" cooler to have this new found flexibility. The more sensitive (and with less "hiss") super heterodyne receivers increased our usable range as well. Then later, we moved up to either 1, 3, or 5 watt Walkie-Talkies, which further increased our range, as well as channel capability.  Parallel to the move up to "stronger" Walkie-Talkies, some of our peers went the route of acquiring older (and therefore affordable) tube radios (such as this) with a less than full channel capability, but with full 3-5 watt power output. Since these base radios required an external antenna, we were again forced to improvise using random length home-made wire antennas.  This provided minimal performance compared to a commercially made ground plane antenna.  But they worked well enough to extend local range far beyond what our former 100 mW radios provided.  A few others chose yet a slightly different route. These guys chose to buy, not a better radio, but a commercial 1/2 wave CB antenna, and connect it to their current 1.5 watt Walkie-Talkies. This strategy actually worked out well. A 1.5 watt Walkie-Talkie connected to an external gain antenna did far better in range than a 4 watt radio on home-made random wire antennas.  So at one point, we had a variety of people running all sorts of diverse radio station kludges. The good news is that despite the huge variation in equipment, we all managed to communicate with each other, and have fun doing it.  Eventually, we all managed to make it to the big leagues of full powered 23 channel rigs, along with real commercial gain antennas outside, even if we took slightly different paths while getting there.  But even after we had finally made it to the level of bona-fide CB radios and antennas, the desire for even greater improvements continued.  Bigger, and higher gain antennas, amplified microphones, more power, out-of-band channels, SSB, and other add-on accessories, etc. The push to upgrade never really stopped, it only became more subtle and less dramatic as the years wore on.  It also became less of a big deal once we were all of serious income producing age, and could more easily afford to appease our addiction.

All throughout our progression in CB radio, one other thing remained fairly constant; that at each stage of our "evolution", we were forced to push whatever we had to the limit, if we wanted to achieve the best possible performance that we could, before we were forced to advance to the next stage. This opened up all sorts of avenues for trial and error-type learning.  Even without a formal course in radio and antenna theory, we eventually learned how to make simple resonant antennas through trial and error. We learned how to add things like an "S" meter to an old tube rig that was not originally equipped with one. We learned how to align a transmitter, and how to increase the plate voltage to the final tube, in order to achieve the greatest possible power output.  I even managed to build, not one, but a few tube linear amplifiers, and learned how these amplifiers actually worked in the process (along with a few high voltage shocks and an occasional RF burn). We also experimented with expanding frequency coverage.  Many other accessories were also conceived and built. All this was done in order to take the existing level of our equipment and push it as close as we possibly could toward that magical next level, without having to spend the equivalent amount of money to commercially obtain that next level of equipment.

So now, when I go back to my daydream of possessing that fancy "super radio" back in the early days in CB, I have now come to realize that while it certainly would have been great from a "gee whiz", king-of-the-hill perspective, and a great boost to my "status" among my peers and a boost to my own ego as well, the total experience would probably have been much less rewarding overall.  I certainly would not have pushed myself to learn the amount of radio knowledge that I did, as the primary driving force would not have been there.  My humble appreciation for building a station from the ground up would also have been glaringly absent.  All of the trials and tribulations, along with the cuts, scrapes, burns and shocks would not have been there either.  And since those many nights worth of experimenting would likely not have happened, there would not have been the same amount of interesting material with which to base stories, such as this one, some 30 years later when making this website, so the ripple effect is both extensive and comprehensive. I strongly believe what many have said, in that you never really learn to appreciate something, until you are forced to work for it.

So the next time I'm scanning through the channels, maybe instead of using the fancy general coverage all-mode rig,  maybe I'll switch to an old walkie-talkie and see what I can hear. Perhaps I can find a room in my house which brings those distant signals in more clearly.  Or maybe I'll string a hunk of wire outside my window and wrap it around the antenna.  Maybe then, I'll truly be able to reconnect with that long-lost thrill from the past.