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Thursday, October 18, 2012

My Personal Morse Code Story - Larry W2LJ

I was not always enamored with Morse Code like I am now.  This is a personal story that began when I was about 16 years old or so.  When I was in high school, I wanted to become a Ham.  I had the fortune of having an electronics teacher, Mr. Benson, who was already a licensed Ham.  We had a club station at school; and from demonstrations of the radios, I knew I wanted to get "in" on this great hobby.  Mr. Benson tried to teach a bunch of us the Morse Code; but I wasn't getting it.  In addition to the standard printed out sheet, I went to our local Lafayette Electronics store and purchased an Ameco Code Phonograph Album (remember those?).  No matter how much I practiced, it was no use.  It was all mumbo-jumbo; and unfortunately for me, I gave up after a relatively small amount of frustration.

Fast forward four years.  I had graduated college; had a full time, but not-so-great paying job; and had some free time on my hands, now that homework days were pretty much gone forever.  The local newspaper was advertising an Amateur Radio course that was to be given by a neighboring town's Adult Continuing Education Program.  The spark had reignited and was now a bonafide blaze.  I vowed to myself that this time I would actually do it.

Eight weeks later, as a result of hard work, study and perseverance, I had passed my Novice test.  The teacher had faked us out by promising to give us a "pre-test" so we would feel more comfortable taking the actual code test.  Little did we know that the "pre-test" would negate the need for us to take the "actual test".  We all passed with flying colors!  Approximately six weeks later, I received an envelope through the mail from the FCC with the much coveted "ticket".  I was a "gen-you-ine" Ham radio operator, licensed as KA2DOH.

Still with big dreams in my head, I worked towards my General license.  Visions of sitting behind a desk, with my legs on top, leaning back in a chair, all the while clutching the magic microphone working all the juiciest DX,  filled my brain.  Code was for Novices!  I was to leave it all behind !!!  The next few months saw my code speed rise to the magic 13 WPM mark.  My General Class license study guide was my constant companion.  Six months after receiving my Novice license, I took the test before an FCC examiner and was awarded my General!  I had done it - my hand was firmly grasping the Holy Grail !!  Look out DX, here I come !!!

I rushed home to my "new" used Kenwood Twins, the T599D and R599D.  These were my gift to myself for passing the General exam.  I fired the rig(s) up and got on 20 Meters (the Big Boys band, the promised land - Heaven!).  I took that ol' Astatic D-104 in hand and listened intently for a clear frequency and began to send my voice through the aether as I called CQ.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, I was playing weird LSD style dream games with the TV downstairs.  The picture was a mess, the speaker sounded like a rabid and psycho Donald Duck was trapped inside.  Welcome to RFI, Mr. KA2DOH - welcome to stark reality.  This never happened in the six months of pounding the straight key !!!  The TV never so much as whimpered while I was pounding the brass.

The next few weeks were spent trying to overcome the RFI problem.  Various solutions were tried with varying success.  But it never went away entirely.  If I was to operate during "prime time" it was going to have to be Morse Code or be relegated to family imposed "quiet hours".  It soon became apparent to me that good old CW was to be my salvation.  And you know what ?  I came to love it !!  Once I stopped railing against it; I found that I enjoyed it immensely.  I came to love the sounds, the rhythms, the "song" that Morse Code is.  Today, I operate using CW 100 percent of the time.  In fact, right now I do not even own a rig that has SSB or AM capability.  If you want to find W2LJ, he'll be in the CW portion of the band, pounding brass and loving every second of it.

Learning the Code

Before I go into this .... if any of you out there want an "On-The-Air" tutor, I will do my utmost to get on the air with you for live CW practice, if you want!  Just drop me an e-mail and I'll try to meet you on the air, at a speed you're comfortable with - propagation permitting, of course!  Again, my e-mail is w2lj@arrl.net

There are probably as many different methods for learning Morse Code as there are students trying to learn it!  From the old Boy Scout method, where you would see the letters on a chart and then learn the characters to such "newer" methods as listening to letters delivered as jazzy, upbeat techno-tunes as in the popular CD, "The Rhythm of the Code".

We've come a long way from learning the Code from LP records (Ameco Code Course), cassette tapes, and even machines designed specifically for learning the Code, such as the old Instructograph.  Today there are a plethora of freeware, and shareware computer programs which will aid in your learning process.  Before we go into them, a few words first about learning the Code.

Learn each letter as a "sound".  Do not learn the letters at such a slow speed that you can count each dit and dah.  If you do it that way, then you will hit the dreaded "plateau"!  This is what we all faced in the olden days when we learned code the old fashioned way.  We learned code characters that were sent to us at a 5 WPM rate.  (For example, the letter C was learned as dah        di        dah        dit).  Then, as Novices, when we tried to increase our speed up to 13 WPM for the General license test; we found the going got rough at about 10 WPM.  It's at that point that Code is coming at you at a rate where you can no longer count the individual dits and dahs.  At this speed you have to unlearn everything you had learned to that point; and you had to learn the sound of each letter as a whole.  It's much easier if you learn it that way to begin with; and this is called the Farnsworth Method.  Play the letters as if they are being sent at a 10 -15 WPM rate (Example - learn C as dahdidahdit) ; but increase the spacing between each letter to achieve the effect of 5 WPM.  If you go this route you will not be tempted to pull your hair out later!

All that having been said, use the program you choose wisely.  This is not an endorsement of one program over another; but one of the nice things about the G4FON program is that you can click and choose the letters you want to concentrate on.  Once you have the basic letters, numerals and punctuation down; but find yourself having trouble with the "sound alikes"; you now have a remedy.  With the G4FON program, you can click just "H" and "5"; or "B" and "6"; or "L" and "F" or "L" and "R" or whatever you might be having a problem with.  (From my examples, you can see where I had problems. Hi!)  This way you can gain the confidence you need to go further.  Please remember that learning Morse Code is not a one shot deal! Once you've learned the 5 WPM rate to pass the license requirement, it doesn't end there.  Getting on the air, you will find that conversational CW begins somewhere around 13 to 15 WPM.  At slower speeds it's kind of like two people talking at each other instead of with each other.

Practice, practice and practice!  And then practise some more.  Listen to Code whether it's software generated or on the air from W1AW or from real time QSOs.  The more you listen, the better; but you want to limit your "concentrated" learning sessions to no longer than about 15 to 20 minutes.  After that you kind of go into "sensory overload" and it becomes counter productive.  A good thing to do is to set up one of the Code practise programs to generate a sound file that you can burn to a CD so you can listen in your car while driving; or even while doing other chores around the house.  It is amazing how much you can pick up when you're just in "listening mode" with the code playing in the background.

Another little "thing" that you can do to help yourself learn code is to "tongue" it.  I know, it sounds obscene; but all this is, is sounding out dits and dahs to yourself using your mouth.  While you're driving back and forth to work, code out some of the signs you see on the road.  Training yourself to translate normal words into Morse Code is good reinforcement. (Oh boy, it's a good thing I didn't miss that ditditdit dah dadadah didadahdit sign!)  You get the idea!

The most important thing - relax, relax and relax some more.  Frustration is your worst enemy and causes more people to give up than any other reason.  You will finally "get it", just don't put too much pressure on yourself!  Learning the Morse Code and using it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this hobby as far as I'm concerned.  Don't make it out to be such an ordeal.  If you approach the whole process with a positive outlook; you will be amazed at what you can accomplish


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