I've been waxing nostalgic a lot lately (must be an age thing), recalling significant milestones in my life relating to the early days of my radio hobby and, ultimately, my career as an Electrical Engineer. My interest in electronics began around the same time that I got my first 100 mW CB radio in 1970. I learned some basic electronic principles initially from a 100-in-1 electronic project kit that Radio Shack used to sell, back when they had more of an interest in hobbyists and experimenters and not just focusing primarily on selling cell phones and cheap electronic gadgets. As much as the change in their focus has irritated me over the years, the point of this article is not to lambaste Radio Shack for making a business decision to remain competitive, but rather to illustrate a point. Back when I was a young-un', still wet behind the ears and eager to learn as much as I could about the mysteries of radio and electronics, there were a wealth of resources within walking or bike riding distance from my home. Places where someone could indulge their desire to build stuff and learn a few lessons in the process. Manning those places were usually knowledgeable old timers or enthusiastic younger guys, who were more than willing to help you find what you really needed while offering up helpful suggestions to make your project go more smoothly. While some could argue that the Internet is a far more versatile resource for those seeking knowledge, what they fail to understand is that while the internet can give you more information than you could likely digest in one sitting, it cannot give you the personal anecdotes, colorful stories, or a personal hand up when you reach a stubborn impasse. THAT is what you got when you visited the local hobby stores, and when you got to know local people who enjoyed helping someone broaden their knowledge base.
And since we're on the subject of helpful and influential people, it's time to get to the real point of this editorial, which is to take a little time and give thanks to those people who showed me the ropes, cleared up confusion, helped me obtain equipment, or for just having the patience to put up with my sometimes single focused goals. These people were true mentors, always willing to give, and asking nothing in return. Sometimes the generation gap led to some frustration, but I give them a mountain of credit for not throwing in the towel on me (or AT me). Without some of these guys, I may not have had as satisfying an experience with radio, and who knows where I might be today, or what I'd be doing for a hobby. So without further adieu, here is my list of mentors and influential people, not in any particular order:
Steve - Who wudda thunk it? Hard to believe, but "The Bolt of Lightning", Norristown's foremost agitator and radio guru in the early 70's, was actually somewhat of an early mentor to me. Steve was only a few years older than me and wasn't the most socially acceptable person in my group, and I certainly got a few black marks from some of the adults in the area for associating with him. Steve and I also had a few knock-down drag-out disagreements over the years. But while he had personality issues with people, he was also extremely bright when it came to radio theory. Steve and I didn't start out on the friendliest of terms, and I honestly believe that the main reason for his initial animosity, was that he viewed me as an up and coming threat to his monopolistic hold on technical knowledge within the local group. But while I may have had a half-leg up over some of the other kids in the group in technical knowledge, I had a long way to go to surpass him. I think he finally realized that, and we slowly became somewhat friendly. But despite all of the initial turmoil, I managed to pick up quite a few tricks from him during the early years of my CB experience. He taught me how to "peak" a radio, and those times when he was feeling in a bit of a generous mood, sometimes he'd throw a hunk of surplus gear at me to scavenge parts from or build something out of. He also helped me create the "Poor Man's BFO" and gave me the chassis and power transformer for the first 2 tube amplifier that I built. So despite our sometimes rocky relationship, Steve earns mention as one of the people who made a positive contribution to my knowledge base.
Blue Bandit - BB (Whitey) wasn't all that technical, but he did know how to make things happen. If there was something he couldn't do, he knew others who could. The biggest thing he did for me was finally talking my mother into allowing me to put up a full size CB antenna outside in 1974. Had it not been for him, I would have been doomed to remain the weakest signal out of our local group for God knows how long. And since teenagers are competitive by nature, that just wouldn't do for my radio pursuits. Being forced to be the low man on the totem pole, and with no way to correct it, might have killed my interest in radio right then. Whitey hooked me up with my first CB radio, the Pace 223, and also had it fixed for me when I popped the final transistor out of it while running it with too high of a power supply voltage. He also located a Lafayette Comstat 25 for me when I was looking for a tube-type base radio, and made available different base station antennas for me at his cost when he was selling CB equipment on the side for a few years.
Ralph Williams (N3VT) - Ralph was one of the advisors of our Explorer Post 621 who I first met in late 1974. He was an electrical engineer by trade as well as a ham operator and collector of vintage Atwater-Kent radios. Ralph's "job" as a post advisor was to teach us electronic theory and prepare us to take the novice (and hopefully beyond) ham license test. Since most of the members of the post quickly lost interest in learning Morse code, and it became clear that obtaining a ham license was not one of our short term goals, he modified his lessons to teach general electronic principles and specific items of interest to our mostly CB oriented group. I learned a lot from Ralph, including Ohm's Law, oscillator tank circuits, antenna theory, power supplies, and AM modulation. He would sometimes get frustrated when my focus steadfastly revolved around ways to increase power, but he never gave up and for that I'm eternally grateful.
Sadly, all three of these people have left the Earth, at least in a physical sense. But their spirits live on every time I flip the radio switch on.
Windbreaker - Windbreaker was a member of the Channel 6 CB group which I joined in the fall of 1976. He was a Physicist by trade, and his logical, analytical approach to solving problems made a big impression on me. Once, he had to pull the heads off of his car engine to do some work, and lacking the proper hoist to do it, he cleverly devised an alternative by lashing a 4X4 piece of wood to his roof luggage rack so that it overhung the engine. He then hoisted the heads out with that. He also came to my rescue when my 3 element beam took a dive and got hung up on my electrical service lines. Windbreaker fashioned a sort of lasso from rope with a loop which he threw over the electric line and managed to hook the element that was caught and pulled it off cleanly and without getting us all electrocuted in the process. But the biggest thing that he taught me, was counting in Binary. This was at a time many years before the digital age hit the general public, and when Phase Lock Loop (PLL) radios had just hit the scene. At first everyone talked them down, as nobody really understood how they worked. But Windbreaker knew that the PLL chip was usually programmed by binary words, and he showed me how that all worked. From that point on, the PLL became one of my favorite playgrounds, and seeing how many frequencies I could wring out of a given radio was a frequent passtime. But all that started with about an hour's time with someone who was willing to take the time to teach me something I didn't know.
Ed Rutter/Mark Krause - These two guys were my instructors while I was attending Technical school in the 1970's. While it was their job to teach their craft to incoming students, both of these guys recognized my budding aptitudes and gave me additional opportunities and responsibilities above and beyond the core curriculum of the class. Ed provided the opportunity for me to make a few $$$ on the side installing CB radios in the cars of personal friends and fellow instructors of his. Mark set me up with a full time job doing radio repair for a business associate of his shortly after graduation.
44-44(Snow White's husband Rich) - Rich helped me by setting me up with a job at the company where he worked as a quality control manager. It was my first steady legitimate full time job after having worked for a few months "under the table" at two other jobs which didn't pan out all that well. I was able to work my way up from quality inspection to test and troubleshooting. As I gained experience at this job, I also learned valuable troubleshooting skills from the engineers and other techs there. These skills helped me in my hobby radio pursuits as well. Also, while working at the company, I had access to a plethora of parts which I used to build projects. One of the projects I built with those parts was a digital frequency readout and channel sequencer for my Lafayette Telsat SSB-80 mobile radio. But none of this would have been possible without Rich using his influence to land me that job.
And there you have it. The list of people who made an impression on me back in the formative days was not all that long. But what it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. These guys really came through for me when it really mattered. There have been other people who have helped me along in small subtle ways as the years marched on, but it was those in the earliest days who made the biggest mark, and who earned their place in these archives.