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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Silent Key

 In his early teens, my father was a HAM.  Well, he was a nerd too but when he was in the height of his amateur radio operating days he collected quite a few confirmation postcards.  His equipment was in gram's attic my whole childhood.  He had long since given it up when I knew him so that the only time I ever saw anyone really operating a shortwave radio was when we lived in an apartment in Syracuse.

On the ground floor below us a bachelor moved in and only stayed a short time--a year at most and probably not even that long.  He was Australian, tall, slim, slightly balding with round tortoise shell glasses.  He was in his forties I can see in hindsight but I would have thought him older when I was 12.  He looked right out of casting for a WW II movie and what added to his mystery was the fact that he almost never closed his curtains so we could see him whenever he was home sat in front of his HAM radio.  

Mom called him "The Spy" so we all did.  He was our international man of mystery and led to more than one dinner conversation of what he could possibly be up to.  He and mom began to speak and laugh in the hallways and for a while, I think she even went in and had coffee with him once in a while.  I wondered if there would be romance but mom had quite given up on that in her life.  Still, she didn't hesitate to take over the ironing of his shirts for him.  I think she really enjoyed it.  Now let me explain.  Diana and I put a notice up in our apartment building's mail room claiming we would do odd jobs.  Unfortunately, I wound up cleaning a few old ladies' bathrooms for a fiver but The Spy actually called us and asked if we ironed shirts.  We said yes but clearly didn't know the first thing about starch and steam so mom said something to the effect "Girls you can't call those shirts done here let me teach you how".   We never got a chance to touch the shirts with an iron again-- we were only the pickup and delivery service.  It was sad when The Spy moved away.

I had quite forgotten about HAM radios' existence.  I even thought with technology at today's level it may be outmoded.  Was I wrong.  Turns out there is a HAM alive and well and transmitting out of my backyard.  When we bought the house we're in we thought we'd take out the tree in our backyard.  Then we saw it, rising up above the row of yew against our back fence, a miniature Eiffel Tower of communication.  Is that legal we asked?  It is.  And it turns our lights and ceiling fans on randomly in the middle of the night.  But it makes him happy and our tree blocks it so we get on with it.  Someday that house will sell and a new owner will take it down because what are the chances it would be a selling point? 
My Dad, The Spy, my aging neighbor are or someday will be Silent Keys which is known in the HAM community as a deceased operator.  But think of the joy it brought them through the years to hear and be heard all over the world.  I will eventually post all of Dad's communications for posterity because they are pretty cool but today I'll start with these:

Mexico, 1951; Pakistan no date given; The Vatican, 1950



  1. Jenny: great memories. I have to really beg to differ with you on some of the points in this post. Yes, I remember us putting up our ad in the post room. I was home alone with our deceased brother when the phone rang one night. He grabbed it out of my hand (because he could so he did) and after a moment he said "Its for you boozer". I started speaking to the man with the Australian accent. I thought it was one of Richard's friends playing a joke. But then I realized it was a serious offer of work and did I know how to iron shirts. I said yes. Really, how hard could it be. Well you are right on that part. We totally sucked at it. And mom showed us how. Once we aced it we were ironing his shirts all the time. Mom weren't having nothing to do with it. I remember that we did it so well that at one point I stopped by his apartment to see if he had any shirt that needed a going over. He handed me a few. I took them upstairs and realized that they hadn't been worn and they were still perfect from my last ironing. I guess he didn't want to loose us as help so he gave us "work" to do. Mom said to just go over them and return them. I think we got $1-$2 a shirt. He turned out to be a doctor at Upstate on some sort of exchange. He only lasted a short while and it was weird that he left his curtains open like what with living on the ground floor right near the entrance. It was like he wanted company. I don't remember mom going for coffee. Do you think that might have been wishful thinking on your part? I remember once he was going to leave a key under our door for a friend. When mom and I got home there was no key so we thought nothing of it until a day or so later he called to ask why we hadn't given the key to the friend. Mom got hysterical because she knew that Richard had come home first, found the key and kept it. At first he denied knowing anything about the key and then mom burst into horrible tears begging Richard to give her the key. She didn't want to break the spy's trust. Suddenly the key appeared in Richard's hand. Because it could. She called the Spy back and covered for Richard. I am sure the spy could tell she had been crying. Anyhow, I love the post cards that Dad received from all over the world. And I am happy that we have to the cool "Harriet the Spy" kind of memory of the Spy who came in from the cold to have his shirts ironed. Its all good. And that's my side of it.

  2. Please don't give that beast the honor of calling it the Eiffel Tower - how about the Leaning Tower of Pain in my Ass ugliness?