Tech School Mischief
When you combine a little knowledge with a twisted mind, anything can happen............
When I was a wet-behind-the-ears high school punk back in the mid to late 70's, I was fortunate to have attended a vocational technical school in addition to my regular high school. My growing interest and aptitude for electronics, fueled by my all-consuming CB radio hobby, pushed me to the point where I was sucking up radio and electronic knowledge like a sponge and had already learned a great deal just by experimenting. But I lacked a lot of the important formal theory and thought that taking the electronics course at tech would satisfy this need. My friend Rob (Channel Master), a neighbor, and one of the original founding members of our neighborhood kid's Channel 14 walkie-talkie group, was a year ahead of me in school and was already attending tech school and it was he who had first suggested tech school to me. He also suggested the Radio and TV course, over the basic Electronics course, since the R&TV course had more lab time, which appealed to me, as I learned far more in a hands-on environment, than by a traditional formal classroom lecture style. However, since there could only be a limited number of students accepted into tech each year, it wasn't an automatic slam-dunk, sure-thing bet that I'd be selected. But Rob promised to put in a good word for me to the instructor (how much that actually helped, I really don't know). Whatever the case, my concerns were unfounded, since I did manage to "make the cut" and was accepted into the program. So when my sophomore year started in September of 1975, I would spend half of the day at tech school and the other half at regular school. Being in regular school for only half a day created some challenging class scheduling hurdles. On one hand, I was not able to take a bunch of interesting elective courses, as not all courses were offered in both the morning and afternoon sessions. But on the other hand, I got out of taking unimportant "filler" electives, such as Gym class, which was supposed to be a state requirement, but the school treated it as a "don't ask, don't tell" situation. So far, so good. But you can never have too many good things without a couple of bad things to balance it out, and as luck would have it, Rob ended up in the coveted morning session, while I got stuck in the afternoon session, so we wouldn't see each other in class.
I remember my first day at tech and how I was awed by the test equipment and imagined what I could use it for if I got some time to myself. Needless to say, it didn't take long before I was itching to start working on stuff. But as a new first year student, I would first have to "prove" myself before being allowed to touch the more advanced equipment. Indeed, some of my fellow first year classmates had never even used a soldering iron before or knew much at all about electronics. Talk about jumping in to the deep, dark, murky water with both feet. I could see right off the bat that I had at least one leg up over most of my first year peers.
Tech school was supported by a number of neighboring school districts, so I got to mix it up with a whole different group of guys who I never knew before. I also met up with some CB friends who went to different home schools, and it was one of these guys who started the ball rolling in the techno-mischief department barely a week into the new school year. His name was Craig, and he had an army style canvas backpack where he had crammed a Realistic TRC-11 6 channel CB, a 12V gel-cell battery and a back of the set antenna. When I asked what he was up to, he told me that the school's administrative staff all walked around carrying Fannon CB walkie-talkies tuned to channel 15, which they used to keep in touch when out of the office. Craig had gotten into a little trouble the previous year (he was a second year student), so consequently it was now his life's mission to enact a little revenge by disrupting their communications and to hurl insults at the school administrator and his staff whenever he could. The only problem was that Craig didn't have channel 15 in his radio, and he was trying to do the job by bleeding over from channel 14. Be that as it may, every day at lunch he'd flip open his "pack" and, while looking around to make sure no administrative staff was watching, he'd grab the mic and start broadcasting. I had doubts that he was very effective at his task being one whole channel away, and I wondered why he just didn't just run over to a Radio Shack or Lafayette Radio store and buy a set of crystals for 15 and make the job easier. But it was an entertaining show to watch nonetheless. Greasy hamburgers, salty French fries, and comedic jeering, what could be better for a lunch time distraction?
During my first year of tech school, I also picked up my first SSB CB rig, the Realistic TRC-47, from a guy in the other electronics class. This guy made a mess of things inside the radio and it needed some work. Fortunately, I was allowed to use open lab time to work on it. Our class had a library of SAMS schematics and along with the usage of the signal generator, O'scope, and the right alignment tools, I was able to get it working to some degree. But it also required parts (a transmit final) that we didn't stock in class. Rob was also trying to bring his Midland 13-885 back from the dead after its unfortunate encounter with a lightning strike. Eventually we ended up trading radios, and I was able to get the Midland working again, and it became my first SSB base and my primary workhorse radio for the next 4 years. I still have the SAMS manual for it, having neglected to return it to the class library. But I think the statute of limitations has long since expired for that "crime" though.... Also during that time, I had a creepy run-in with a substitute instructor who was evidently a part of the CB group who we were engaged in a turf war with at the time. I'm still curious how these guys were able to find out so much about us in such a short amount of time in the days before the internet, on-line databases, and people searches.
Of course anytime you have adolescent boys hanging around potentially dangerous equipment, someone is bound to figure out how to use it to inflict pain on another unsuspecting person for the sheer fun of it. And my tech class was no exception. It was common practice, a tradition handed down through the years, for the second and third year students to play pranks on the first year guys. These pranks started off harmless at first, like sending someone up to the other class to ask for an "A.C. Battery", a box of "kilowatts", or a "grid leak patch". Or someone would mess with the stuff on your bench, like taking the battery out of the Volt-Ohm meter, or swapping your test leads with a set which was open, and then laughing when you tried to take a measurement. Of course since I knew a bit more than your average 1st year newbie, those simple tricks didn't work on me, but I went along with them so as not to spoil the fun and, more importantly, draw the ire of the upperclassmen. Those who got on the wrong side of the older guys could find themselves ceremonially tossed into the "Bradley Bowl", a large round basin where water would spray out from a circular nozzle when you stepped on a bar at the tub's base. While designed primarily for washing hands (10 people at a time!), the bowl was large enough to accommodate a person's full body if so desired.
As the other 1st years caught on to the simple gags, the pranks soon progressed to more "interesting" tricks. One of the third year guys built a plastic cube where he fastened isolated metal strips on each side connected to a vibrator and step-up transformer circuit hidden inside the cube which produced several hundred volts (but hardly any current) from a pair of 9 volt batteries. Equipped with a micro switch on the bottom so that the circuit would only become active when the cube was lifted, this devilish device was then innocently placed on a table and some unsuspecting 1st year would be asked to go get it. Then when the hapless victim grabbed and lifted it, the ensuing jolt of electric current would cause the person to let go quickly along with uttering a few choice expletives. A similar but far less complex prank was to charge up a 450V 100uF capacitor to about 300 volts with the leads placed in parallel down opposite sides of the cap. "Hey could you hand me that cap on the desk over there....." he he........ Such were the initiation rituals that the 1st year students were forced to endure. But by the end of the year, no one would fall for any of those tricks ever again. Then when the next year came, it was our turn to pass on these rites of passage to the next crop of newbies. And the tradition goes on.......
Toward the end of my first year of tech, I found myself facing a fork in the road. Next door to our class was another class, which focused on teaching the fine skills of TV and radio production, including transmitter operation and maintenance as well as on-air broadcasting. The school had a license for a 100 watt FM radio station on 91.3 Mhz with the callsign WVVE (We're the Voice of Vocational Education). The relatively low power station managed to cover pretty much the whole of Montgomery County and parts further out. Originally, the school had the idea that they would solicit educational content from the surrounding school districts and broadcast it to a listening audience as an educational and public service function. However, not much educational material was received, so the students ended up spinning records for their broadcast material. Several students got to "play D.J." and got a first hand look at how commercial radio stations put together and broadcast their programs. Around this time, I had become enamored with the idea of becoming a broadcaster (Gee I wonder where THAT idea came from), and I was seriously considering a transfer to that class for my second year. I had already passed a practice exam for a third class FCC license which, if I had followed through and obtained, would have meant that I would've been the only student and, other than the instructor, the only person who could have legally operated the station's transmitter during that session. How cool would that have been? But alas, it was not to be. Toward the end of the '75-'76 school year, the school decided to shut down the radio station and summarily cancelled their license. I heard through the grapevine that the school administrators didn't think that having students spinning their favorite Rock 'n Roll records was the best use for their facilities. And given the nearly non-existent buy-in to their original public service educational plan, they pulled the plug on the station. When that happened, I immediately lost interest in transferring to that class which, without the radio station, had little else to do, and their program was cancelled the next year and their students were absorbed into our class anyway. But I often wonder how my eventual career path might have changed had the radio station remained and I had joined that class.
With the radio station situation now months behind me, my second year of tech school brought about some increases in my responsibilities. First off myself and one other guy, were given the lucrative positions of "customer service", where we would be responsible for the repair of radios and TV's brought in from people on the outside. We'd charge for parts and add a small fixed labor charge. The labor charge money was then put into a "big jar" and used for an end-of-year party and other things for the class which fell outside of the official school budget. In addition to my position as a customer service tech, I was also responsible for placing our weekly parts orders with the local parts supply house. Being in such a prized position gave me access to parts at a discount, as well as access to slightly better quality test equipment. Being in this seemingly heaven-sent position, I couldn't resist the opportunity to work on CB radios whenever I got the chance. It was during one of these times, when I had brought in a Lafayette HB-525 that someone had given me. The transmitter worked fine (Something that I was keenly aware of), but the receiver was dead. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to find the bad part (in hindsight 30 years later, I think it probably had a bad 2nd mixer crystal). So since I could not get the receiver working and be able to use the radio as intended, I decided to have some fun with the part that did work. If you remember my comments from the previous year, the tech school administrators used channel 15 for their intercom. We never knew whether Craig's little "stealth" radio bleeding over from channel 14 ever gave the school personnel any cause for concern. But here I sat, a year later, looking at a 23 channel radio with a working transmitter with channel 15 accessible by a simple click of the dial. The temptation to cause a little mischief was just too great, so I soon found myself hooking the radio's antenna jack to the school's master TV antenna system. I knew this would not present a good SWR, but it should allow the signal to propagate through the school. Once hooked up I started playing radio station DJ, with sophomoric comments interspersed with periods of music provided by one of our bench radios. I did this off and on for the whole morning. Since the receiver was dead, I had no idea whether I was affecting the school staff or not. At least not on that day....... A day or so later though, my class instructor pulled me aside and told me that he had heard a complaint about interference to the school's communication's system and asked me if I was using my CB to transmit. I never expected that my prank would ever get traced back to me, and I now didn't feel all too great about it. Spineless adolescent that I was, I lied and denied that I was doing anything more than making short occasional tests. But rather than risk further incidents, I took that CB home to remove any temptation toward further interference. Besides, I was only curious to know if I could do it, and that question had been answered. There was no further point in continuing. After all, this had been Craig's fight not mine.
That wouldn't be the last time I had a CB in school though. I occasionally worked on others, and at one point I fabricated a coaxial dipole antenna to see if I could use it to monitor the locals and maybe even talk back. Tech school was located less than a 2 miles from a few of the Channel 6 regulars. Most notably, Snow White was about the closest to me at a little over 1/2 mile away. She was known to chat it up on the radio with a few of the other mothers every morning while she got her kids ready for school. So one morning, I draped my homemade antenna across the fluorescent ceiling light fixtures and hooked it up. I was able to hear the people somewhat and Snow White's relative closeness put her signal close to "S9". When there was a momentary pause in the coffee klatch banter, I tried breaking in. Snow White heard me, but not very strong. When I told her where I was and what I was running, she thought it was cool that I managed to figure out a way to hook a radio up in my class. But no one else on the channel could hear me though. Oh well, I really didn't expect much from an indoor antenna. But I did manage to say hello on a couple of mornings and in the process, I might have sparked an interest in CB radio among a few of my classmates, who were curious as to what I had been doing.
My CB interest and expertise didn't go unnoticed by my Tech instructor either. On more than one occasion he pulled me aside and asked if I would be interested in making a few bucks on the side by installing CB radios in different people's cars. Of course, I jumped at the chance to make a little gas money, and it also showed my instructor's confidence in my abilities, which probably meant even more to me in the long run.
Remember how I said that anytime you put together teenaged boys and potentially dangerous equipment, the outcome usually meant pain for someone? Well, this year we figured out a new little game to play. Only this time it wasn't in the form of a prank played on another unsuspecting person. No, this time the game was designed to measure each of our "manliness" by way of a variable high voltage power supply (the same supply that we used to charge up our trick capacitors) and two wire leads. One person would lightly hold the bare leads between their fingers while another person would slowly crank the voltage up until the first person couldn't stand it anymore and let go. The power supply maxed out at 300 volts, but most of us let go before it hit 200 volts. We also figured out that if our fingers were dry and if we held on to the wires as lightly as possible, we could handle higher voltages. But let me tell you, after getting bit by the 800V supply in my Contex amplifier, holding on at 150V was a walk in the park.
My third and final year of tech brought about some major changes. My original instructor got a job offer in the private sector that he just couldn't refuse, so we started off the school year with a brand new instructor. We also had the very first female enroll as a first year student, thus putting an end to the previously all male class. As it turned out, this girl was also a CB'er who went by the handle of "Dizzy Broad" (you can hear her during this audio clip), so I knew her to some degree. Being the only girl, in what had been strictly an "all boys club", was a challenge for her. Needless to say, because of her gender-role challenging status, the fact that she was a first year student, and that she wasn't attractive enough to make the guys swoon over her, meant that her "initiation" into the fold was a little rougher than what had befallen those who came before her. In addition to the usual first year pranks (watch out for those charged capacitors!), she once had her locker epoxy glued shut, which required the full force of our new instructor applied to a pry bar to open. And speaking of pranks, another prank which was pulled that year, was my "objectionable music jammer". Every student in the class had their own bench which they worked on. And every student pretty much had their own radio/stereo to listen to. Most of us were into the contemporary rock music of the time (which I'm still into). However, there were a couple who were into more "Urban" music. After getting into a bit of a "volume war" with others, I decided to do something to silence this "noise pollution". So I made a simple 1/4 wave whip antenna for the FM broadcast band out of a piece of stiff wire, and stuck it into the output jack of my bench's R.F. signal generator. I tuned the generator to the frequency of the offending radio station and cranked up the signal until it blanked out the station. Problem solved. Unfortunately, I couldn't keep what I was doing secret. If I would have been a little more surreptitious in my plan, I might have been able to continue this for a long while. But it's hard to do things like this without attracting some attention. So eventually the prank was figured out, and I was forced to stop. A variation of this prank was setting the frequency of the generator to 455Khz, which was the I.F frequency for the 5 tube radio kits that first year students had to build. Setting the jammer there effectively blocked out the entire radio. It was a blast watching the unsuspecting 1st years trying to figure out why they could no longer pick up those AM stations that were tuned in the day (or minutes) before....
My own relationship with the new instructor eventually evolved into one of mutual respect. Maybe not quite as strong as had been with my old instructor, but fairly close. Initially, I had been used to doing things the "old way" and it took a little while to adjust to the "new way". But things improved throughout the year as he found out who his best people were, and then relied on us to help him adjust to how things had been done. He tried not to make too many changes, and I was once again put in charge of ordering parts and running customer service. I brought in several CB radios from customers of mine, which worked out great for me twofold. First I got class credit for analyzing and correcting the problems. Plus I made money for the work that I did. In addition to CB radios, I also branched out into home and car stereo repair. It was almost as if I was getting paid to go to school. Not a bad situation to be in. But nothing lasts forever, and after 3 long years, a lot of learning, and a chance to taste "the real world" of electronic repair, it all came to an end when the school year ended and I said goodbye to tech school for the last time. My instructor and I exchanged phone numbers and remained in touch for a time afterward. He also had some connections in the industry and set me up with a full time job during the late fall of 1978. The whole class got together for an end of year party at a local amusement park (now defunct), where we sent the school year (and for the seniors, graduation) off in a wild bash.
Tech school definitely played an important role in my education, but it was also a good bit of fun. In many ways, I felt more connected to tech than my home high school itself. I guess because at tech, I was among peers who shared common interests, and I fit in far better than among the various social "cliques" at home school. I have many fond memories of those days. It's a shame that tech doesn't do reunions. That's one I'd definitely attend. But I'd have to keep an eye out for loose electrolytic capacitors sitting idly on a table........