I had been thinking about my days as a new ham in 1971. Just for fun, I thought I would write down some of my remembrances, for what it’s worth, and possibly compare them to what a new ham of today might experience. It has been over a half-century now, which I can’t believe I’m even saying.

I became interested in radio after often looking at Allied, Lafayette, and Heathkit catalogs in the late 1960s. My Dad had built some Heathkits, stereo, portable radio, TV. They bought me a Heath GR-64 in 1969, which I built with his help.

Mid-1971 was when I became involved in ham radio, and I began studying for my Novice exam. In those days, there was no Volunteer Examiner program. All exams were taken at FCC offices except the Novice (and the unusual Conditional license). Any licensed General Class ham or above could administer a Novice exam. The FCC did start to give exams at some hamfests in the late 70s or early 80s, but had not begun them as of 1971.

I don’t recall every detail, but the process was to write to the FCC in Gettysburg, PA and request a form 610. At some point I had to make contact with another ham and ask if he/she was willing to conduct a Novice exam for me. I believe we first arranged a date/time for a 5 WPM code test. There were no machines, no recordings. The other ham came up with a 5 minute test (it may have been scripted by the FCC, not sure), and he sent at approximately 5 WPM. Hopefully he/she was a good sender. I believe he used some type of code oscillator.

They would check the results, which I believe was at least one solid minute with no mistakes. Then you had to demonstrate you could send at at least 5 WPM. If they determined you passed the receiving and sending test, they mailed off the form 610 back to the FCC. Now you waited for the written test to be sent back to him. In a couple weeks, you got a call to schedule the written test.

I was 15 years old. My mentor/elmer Ed Fisher WB2FLA didn’t feel equipped at the time to give me the exam, so he suggested I contact Jim Beneway, WA2LHM. I knew who he was, but had never met him. He was a second (or third, fourth?) generation fruit farmer in town. I had been on his farm when I was younger, as some of my sister’s Girl Scout activities had taken place there, and my Mother was involved, so my brothers and I along with other boys would try to stay out of trouble.

The other way I knew about him was that the high school I attended was named after him. James A. Beneway High School was part of the Wayne Central School District (and still is).

Now I had hoped I could get my Dad to call him. My parents had only lived in Ontario 26 years by then, but they knew a lot of people in town, and I’m sure he at least knew him casually. But of course my Dad said that I would have to call him. I guess I did OK as I did take the test in October/November 1971, in the shack of WA2LHM.

I had some pretty good memories of his shack. His house was a mid-century modern house, built on a slight slope. It looked like a ranch from the front, but a two story from the back. His shack was on the lower level and was ground level at the rear. I remember the wood paneled walls, and all that equipment!

I did pass the tests, CW and written. It did take two separate visits in those days, as they wouldn’t send the written test until the code test was certified as passed. I don’t recall having much conversation with Mr. Beneway. We did talk a little, and my Dad was in the room (I think), or maybe he sat in the car after the initial greet.

Not sure if he knew it, but I later resurrected the school Radio Club, which had been dormant for several years. He had been the original club license trustee, but the license was still good and I got it back on the air for a couple of years, and must not have gotten any citations!

I don’t recall ever seeing him again. Sometime shortly after I was married in 1980, I remember hearing he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. He died in 1981 at only age 62.

One of the unfortunate casualties in the FCC simplification of the US Amateur licensing system was the loss of the Novice license. I believe the Novice license class was created in the 1950s. It had a couple of problems; it was only good for 1 year and it was not renewable. At some point it was changed to a two year term, but was still unrenewable.

I guess I understood the not renewable part, it was part of the “incentive licensing” strategy intended to allow hams to work their way up through the classes, becoming more knowledgeable and gaining more privileges along the way.

In 1971, Novices could operate HF CW from 3.700 – 3.750 MHz, 7.100 – 7.150 MHz, 21.100 – 21.200 MHz. They also had privilege’s on 2 meters, including voice. Power was limited to 75 watts Input power, and crystal control only.

Though quite limiting, it certainly encouraged CW proficiency, and steered many new hams into building their first transmitter, either as a homebrew or a kit.

Ham radio has changed a lot in 50 years. Morse code is no longer required for any ham radio license classes. Commercially available equipment is plentiful, well designed and easy to operate. The FCC wants to minimize their efforts to administer and regulate the Amateur Radio service.

Most of of this has been good. I’m not sure the Technician license has been the best replacement for an entry level license. As impressive as a Baofeng handie-talkie is for $25, I don’t think the experience is anything as good as what a Novice licensed ham experienced on the HF novice segments pounding out a CQ on CW and getting back a call. Techs can work CW on some HF bands, but the reality is probably few do.

In Part 2, I’ll tell about my experience getting on the air.

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