I couldn't help but smile as I looked at the papers of questions in my hands. Only thirty-five questions in place of the seventy-five I had faced before. I didn't know why the change had been made, but if it made it easier for me to get a license so I could talk on the Ham Radio, I certainly wasn't going to complain!
My pencil clicked down the choices on the answer sheet. It seemed such a breeze compared to the earlier exams. I needed to get eight questions or less wrong to get my Ham license. This was my third try at the exam, and I felt confident that I would finally succeed.
There. Done. I snatched up the answer sheet and questions to bring to the front desk, where my exam would be graded so I could see the results before I left.
The man at the desk greeting me with a smile, reaching a pudgy hand out for my exam.
"Sit down," he invited. I sat.
My eyes flicked back and forth as his red pen made checks (correct) and X's (wrong) on my paper. For the first time during that exam, I felt nervous. My palms began to sweat and my throat felt dry. My eyes kept flicking.
Only five questions left to be graded. I swiftly counted the number of red X's on my paper. Three. Three . . .
I could not fail! My eyes lit up (focusing on the man's hand) and I wanted to dance with joy. I had done it!
The man looked up, and I saw his smile reflect my own. I thought about all the obstacles, disappointments, and determination that had made up my dream to become a Ham Radio operator-a dream that was finally realized and complete.
My dream had truly begun when I was seven years old. My dad had been a Ham for five years and likened the conversations on the radio to chat rooms, only not on a computer. I have found that this is a common and accurate analogy, save for the fact that my Ham Radio experiences have been much more pleasant and friendly than many chat rooms can be.
If you modify a radio in a certain way, it would actually be possible to transmit to TVs, regular AM/FM radios, or airline bands. In face, certain bands (frequencies, such as 145.45 MHZ or 102.7) are reserved for police communications. Yep, the way the police relay information is simply a specific sort of Ham radio.
Obviously, people shouldn't just be able to disrupt emergency communications or TV channels, so there is a test that every Ham must pass to get their license. The license is a ticket, of sorts, to talk on Ham frequencies. This exam ensures that Hams understand the rules of Ham Radio, as well as safety procedures.
I had never really thought about Ham Radio. I knew that it was a hobby of Dad's and that his callsign (a special name on Ham Radio that the Federal Center for Communications issues to avoid confusing two Johns, for instance, or three Marys) was AA6WK, but that was strictly all-Dad's hobby.
The radio, to me, was a "grown-up" thing to do. Not for a kid like me. There was the idea of "kid activities" vs. "adult activities" stuck in my head. There were certain things that adults could do and certain things kids could do-and talking on the Ham Radio was not on the kid list!
Considering this aspect of my beliefs at the time, I was understandably shocked when Dad suddenly showed up in my room one rainy August morning when I was seven, a thick blue book held loosely in his hands, and asked me if I wanted to get a Ham license.
For a moment I was speechless, my mouth hanging open and my eyes locked on his. "Uh . . . uh . . ." I finally stuttered.
My lack of reaction must have disappointed Dad, for he looked down and I saw his knuckles grow white on the book.
"I thought it would be kind of neat if you did. You're not too young," he said quickly, apparently seeing the doubt in my eyes, "in fact, a seven-year-old just got her license. You'd need to pass a test, but here's the book with all the possible questions and correct answers."
After this rapid speech, Dad turned abruptly, leaving the book on my bed, and closed my door. Bewildered by this sudden retreat, I slowly set the book on my lap and opened it distractedly. It was too much for my seven-year-old mind to handle. My whole adult/kid beliefs were being stood on their head.
I glanced down and quickly shut the book, all thoughts of getting a license banished immediately. If every page was like that-God, how could a person study 700 pages of dull words and boring gray pictures?
I decided to put the book back in the bookshelf it had come from. But . . . oh, poor Dad, he had seemed so excited at the thought of me attempting that exam to get a license . . . no, the book had to go back. But Dad needn't know that.
That night I crept silently out of my room and into the playroom, pushing the book into an empty space on the bookshelf. Then, confident that no one had seen me, I crept back to my room and fell asleep.
Dad did not ask me again about getting a Ham license, and for five years I completely forgot about the whole matter. Perhaps once I debated studying for a license, but one look at a single page of the Ham book banished the thought from my mind.
Those five years of nothing (at least on the aspect of Ham Radio) drew to a close when a Science Club formed suddenly in our school. There were a variety of things we would need to learn to accomplish our goal of building a miniature satellite the size of a Coke can and launch it in Black Rock Desert, Nevada-general information on rockets, the object that would carry our satellite high above the Earth; computer programming to build the satellite; Ham Radio for communication-
My ears perked up. Here was something I knew about! This club would be the driving force behind my studies and Dad would be so proud of me! In fact . . . had the man telling us about the club really just said they needed an instructor for the Ham Radio studies? Maybe Dad . . .
That night I asked Dad if he would instruct the club on Ham Radio. When he said yes with enthusiasm, I was glad-I had already volunteered him.
At school, it was agreed upon that the Science Club would begin right after Christmas Break. All the while, I waited impatiently to begin work. What a change from my attitude five years before!
When Christmas Break finally ended and the Science Club began, I stayed at school sometimes from seven in the morning to seven at night. I endured the hour of planning, rocketry, and micro processing for the hour when Dad would answer our questions and quiz us on Ham Radio.
After a month, my enthusiasm wavered. We were supposed to pass the exam by the end of February. That left al of the Science Club members a scant month to read the twelve chapters of the Ham book and pass. Staring at the book in my hands, I despaired of ever learning it. Those boring words and dull pictures grinned up at me mockingly, daring me to abandon them as I had at age seven.
The week after I had finished chapter one (a great accomplishment for me), Dad approached me about the exam.
"I think it would be a good experience for you. I don't expect you to pass,"-neither did I-"but it will give you an idea about how the exam is like. Then you won't be so nervous the next time."
A bit warily I agreed. I could see his point.
So the next morning we sped to the exam site, the nervousness in my breast doubling when Dad realized I needed my student I.D.-why the heck did they need the stupid I.D.?
When I finally stumbled into the exam room, my small bag of writing instruments, I.D., and money to take the exam clutched tightly, I felt like I had just run a marathon. My heart pounded, my breath was ragged, and salty sweat dripped from every pore in my body. And yet all I could do was wait.
Wait to be seated, wait for an exam, wait for it to be collected, wait to fail. Fail. I knew I would-I had barely completed one chapter!-but when the short man at the desk told me, "I'm sorry, lass," in his lilting Irish accent, tears welled in my eyes. Horrified by my body's betrayal of my senseless disappointment, I struggled quickly to overcome it.
Considering that I am the sort who is easily discouraged-the mere sight of a page in a book had scared me away from Ham Radio for years!-it is surprising to reflect that my resolve to succeed strengthened in that instant. Maybe it was my dad's confidence in me, or the short Irish man who had been so nice, or maybe simple competitiveness against my classmates, but I didn't want to let anybody down. From then on I read like a madwoman, using the snippets of free time I had: eating meals, getting dressed, driving to and from school, in the bathroom, and after homework. And no matter what I was doing, I would always set it aside to take the twice-daily computerized exams Dad gave me.
I slowly reached chapter three, chapter four, chapters five, six, seven . . . finally I felt ready to brave the exam room again. I asked Dad when he would take me to the exam site again, and we agreed to leave at eight o'clock Saturday morning.
The tension of the exam room was somewhat lessened by my previous experience; but even so, I was still extremely nervous.
I sped through the first thirty-five questions with ease, but the last thirty questions left me stumped. I guessed the answers, praying enough were correct.
When a man had collected my exam, I dragged my feet slowly to a far corner of the room. A fly buzzed around the window, trying to get out; the increased agitation of its movements mirrored my heart.
The fly finally collapsed on the windowsill and I sighed. My gaze focused on the tiny man at the front desk, his red pen darting back and forth on his stack of papers.
One by one, people left. Soon the room emptied and I was left alone in my white corner of the room, still waiting.
"Nicole La Fetra."
I trudged up the short walk tot he desk. The walk lasted hours, months, centuries, but finally I was there.
The Irish man greeted me. He held my exam papers in his hand. "Lass . . ." he said softly, "'ya failed by one."
One. One. One, one, one, one . . . it seemed to echo in my head. I wanted to scream, to cry, but I held my mask of imperturbable calm until I reached the car. Then I fell apart.
"Oh, Dad, I failed by one, by one stupid question!" I sobbed. "If I had memorized one question, my call sign would be on the way!"
Dad said nothing, making sympathetic noises. The feeling of self-loathing and anguish persisted for about one terrible week. Gradually, mustering all the will and optimism I had, I accepted what I could not change. And I counted down the days until the day of the big exam-format change, when thirty-five questions would take the place of the seventy-five questions there now. A bold red circle highlighted the day: April 15, 2000.
* * *
BREEP! BREEP! BREEP!
Huh? I woke up groggily. My light pink ceiling welcomed me cheerfully. A yawn chook my body and I reached out a hand to shut the stupid alarm off. I rolled over to go back to bed.
Mom came into my room with a bright smile, my folded clothes in her arms.
"Hi, Babycakes!" she said, setting the clothes down on my bed. "Ready for the exam?"
The exam? OH! In a flash I was out of bed, pulling on the first clothes that came to hand. I struggled with a sock and Mom chuckled.
"Such enthusiasm for six-thirty in the morning!" she laughed. "Do you have everything-money, I.D., social security number, pencil, eraser? . . ."
"And calculator!" I replied, holding up the small red bag with my stuff in it.
"Good," Mom said, closing my door behind her. I finished tying my shoes and disappeared behind my vanity wall to fix my hair.
An hour later, Dad and I drove to the Ham exam site.
"Good luck," he said, kissing my head.
"I'd better pass," I muttered. "Mom told me if I don't, I have to wait another month to take the exam."
I walked to the front desk with trepidation. Butterflies frolicked in my stomach. I swiftly began filling out answers as soon as I had looked over the exam.
And I had finally done it! I had my license coming soon-at last!
After a look of wonder at the examiner, I ran into my dad's waiting arms.
"Congratulations, ham-bone," he said. I groaned and hugged him tighter. I felt like my happiness would never end, and I closed my eyes in bliss.
* * *
I waited expectantly as Dad turned from the computer to me. He shook his head.
"What??!!" I shouted, "A month already and my callsign hasn't been issued?! This is crazy!"
"The FCC is all backed up from the April 15th exams," Dad said softly, his calm an infuriating contrast to my emotional outburst. "I'm sorry."
I stalked down the stairs into my room, where I relaxed after a while with a book. Hours later, I looked at my clock with a sigh. Almost time for dinner.
Opening the door softly, I stepped into the hall and then into the family room. I looked through the open door into the dining room, my eyes freezing on the image of Dad talking on the radio. A pang of emptiness washed through me, and I flung myself down onto the pillows, silently crying. After Dad would see me,-after all, it wasn't his fault I didn't have my callsign yet-I managed to stumble to my room, where I composed myself for dinner with difficulty.
Finally, finally, one month and three days after my exam (not that I was counting), I woke up to hear Dad telling Mom, "Yep, KG6-" The rest was obscured by my sister turning on the TV, but I realized he was saying a callsign. It had to be my callsign.
I have never figured out why, but I am reluctant to find out information by hearsay. Whenever I overhear someone say something of interest to me, I take pains to find out the information directly.
So I tiptoed out of my room, up the stairs, and flicked on my e-mail. There was a message waiting for me.
"Subject: new call 4/15
KG6BKK Alvernas, Rhonda L L00241883
KG6BKL Beyza, Dario L00241884
KG6BKM La Fetra, Nicole M L00241885-"
I almost whooped with joy. Instead, I ran down the stairs as fast as I could, throwing myself into the kitchen.
"Dad! Mom! Dad! Dad! Dad-I got my callsign! It's KG6 . . . KG6B . . . KG6 . . ."
"-BKM," my dad finished. Then he turned to my mom. "Huh," he grunted, "True daughter of Silicon Valley-reads her e-mail before even bothering to say, 'Good morning!'" I blushed.
"Congratulations, hamster!" he said, hugging me, and I rolled my eyes at Mom and groaned before hugging him back.
That same day my family drove up to Oakland. I brought my radio (courtesy of Dad) and, while I was waiting in the car for everyone else, decided to talk to someone.
I pressed the PTT (Push To Talk) button and said, "This is KG6BKM . . . would anyone like to talk?" I released the button and listened carefully. Soon I heard a reply.
"Hi, KG6BKM. This is KG6ADW."
My heart thumped. I was talking to someone at last! I pressed the PTT button again.
"Hi, KG6A . . . KG6A . . . Um, what's your name?" I listened again. Then, as an afterthought, I added, "I'm Nicole!"
I heard a laugh across the radio. "I'm Sam. Don't worry, you'll get better at remembering callsigns after a while."
"I can't even remember my own," I admitted. "Dad has a sticker on my radio saying, KG6BKN . . . I mean M!" From there, Dad joined in the conversation on his radio, and we three talked for a few minutes before Mom asked us to stop because she wanted to play her CDs.
"Wow!" Dad remarked after we had turned off our radios. "I'm impressed-you started a conversation without me! And right away, too! I remember when I first became a Ham, it took me days to work up the nerve to talk!"
"Why?" I asked, confused. "All you do is push a button and talk. Like on a phone or something."
Dad looked even more impressed. "For most people, it's not that easy."
I shrugged. "Well, I've been around you talking on the radio almost my entire life. That's probably why."
"There's a difference between seeing and doing . . . " He shook his head. "Wow."
A few days later, I was about to turn off my radio after a conversation with AI6Q when a voice broke across the radio.
"KG6BKM, could you spare a moment?"
"Sure," I replied. "KG6BKM here."
"This is Kamal, KA6MAL, and I don't know if you know, but today is ARRL Kids' Day. It's like a Field Day for kids who don't have licenses. Would you mind speaking to my daughter, Emeline?"
"Of course not! Go ahead and put her on. It would be my pleasure."
"Ok then: the standard information to exchange is one's name, age, location, and favorite color. Emeline, say hello . . . "
"Hi," a kid's voice said. It was adorable, and I found myself smiling.
"Hi Emeline. I'm Nicole, I'm almost thirteen years old, I live in Sunnyvale, and my favorite color is white."
"Thank you, Nicole. Emeline, say your name-"
"Thwee." I chuckled.
"Location . . . where we live-"
"Uh . . . I don't know!" Emeline exclaimed.
"Boulder Creek," a whisper came across.
"Buwdew Cweek." I burst out in hysterical laughter. Emeline was so cute!
"Your favorite color-"
"Um, pink!" said Emeline.
"Okay, Emeline! That was fun! I need to go now, but it was nice talking to you!" I said.
Well, thank you, Nicole! Emeline had fun, too! KA6MAL, Kamal, clear."
"KG6BKM, clear." I said.
I held my radio for a moment, a smile growing on my face, then switched it off and laid it gently on my desk. I laughed in delight, startling my hamster, who started running furiously in her wheel. Any insecurities I had felt before had disappeared in that one, brief conversation. I had been the older, more experienced person in my contact with Emeline, for a change. She had looked up to me as I looked up to Dad, and I had indulged her and let her have a good time.
I had made someone happy through Ham Radio. And knowing that, remembering that, I fell asleep that night with a contented smile on my face.
Written July 2000, Nicole La Fetra
[ Return to Writing | Return to my home page | e-mail me at Nicole@LaFetra.com ]