The Amateur Amateur: Upgrading Made Difficult
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
The 20 WPM
Morse code exam started. At that exact moment, a construction crew
just outside started up the world's loudest jackhammer. I thanked
heaven that we were not taking the Morse code exam!
March 20, 2002
I consider Amateur Radio to be all about learning. Some lessons are difficult,
and some are easy. But sometimes the easy lessons are the ones that
almost kill you. Let me tell you about when Nancy and I took the
exams to get our General tickets.
We passed the 13
WPM Morse code exam in September 1996 and started studying for the
general-class written exam shortly after that. We decided to take the
test at Winterfest '97, a local hamfest, which was held on January 25
that year. The portents and omens were grim.
Oh, it's not that
we hadn't studied. It's not that we didn't feel confident about the
outcome of the exams. It's just that the world fell on us.
Now let's see, do I have everything? (Apparently not!)
I knew what we needed to take to the testing session, and--being a very
compulsive person--I had it all laid out the night before. Pencils.
Pens. Paper. Calculators. Originals and copies of our current amateur
licenses and pertinent certificates of completion. Money to pay the
exam fees. I had even called a month in advance to register for the
session. Man, I was ready
It was bitterly
cold and windy on the day of the exams. We got there on time but
found that perhaps a hundred people had arrived ahead of us, and all
the tables were already occupied. We signed in, found seats, and sat
down. And the chairs almost collapsed, apparently having been
constructed of tinfoil and silly putty.
Then we waited.
We did a lot of that. Taking the exam only took about 10 minutes, but
we were there for three hours. Eventually we were called to the front
of the room to have our IDs, current licenses, and certificates
verified and to pay the exam fees. They wanted both the original
documents and copies of everything
. They kept the copies and
looked at the originals just to verify the copies hadn't been faked.
But man, I was so ready
Then I discovered
that instead of bringing copies of both our licenses and
certificates, I had accidentally brought two
everything for Nancy and no
copies of my own documents. Man, I
was so not
ready! The head examiner shook his head and told me
I'd have to go find someplace to get copies made. He suggested a
nearby drug store. So out I went into the cold, cruel world in search
of a copy machine.
The drug store
wasn't far by summer standards, but on this Arctic day it seemed like
miles . . . leagues . . . light years. I was on the verge of
hypothermia by the time I got there. And they didn't have a copy
machine. But the clerk suggested that I try the supermarket, which
was miles . . . leagues . . . light years in the opposite
I detoured to a
nearby hotel instead and promised the clerk at the registration desk
that I would give her anything, anything
, if she would
copy my two documents. She took pity on
me and made copies for me at no charge. I made it back to the testing
session and somehow managed to regain feeling in my frostbitten
fingers before the examinations started.
Changing the tire in sub-zero weather--the final insult.
More waiting. Someone at the next table had brought in a baby, which
started to cry. Half the people in the room lit up cigarettes.
Finally the order came, "Seal the room!" A young kid was
dispatched to prevent adults 10 times his body weight from using the
exam room as a shortcut to the hamfest. (He wasn't very successful.)
handed out the written tests, very slowly. They said, "Don't
start the tests until we tell you!" But this instruction fell on
deaf ears. They eventually recanted and said to start as soon as we
got the exams. (They also told us to be sure to sign the answer
sheets, but they only gave that instruction after most of the answer
sheets had been handed in.)
Once the written
exams were distributed, the examiners warned us to be quiet. They
were about to start the Morse code exams. Don't talk. Don't hand in
your papers. Turn off all cell phones, radios, pagers, alarm watches
and pacemakers (just kidding about that last item).
The 20 WPM Morse
code exam started. At that exact moment, a construction crew just
outside started up the world's loudest jackhammer. I felt like we
were in a submarine and somewhere on the surface a destroyer was
dropping depth charges on us. I thanked heaven that we
not taking the Morse code exam!
Despite all the
distractions, Nancy and I finished our exams quickly. They were easy.
We double-checked and triple-checked our answers. During a brief
pause between Morse code tests, we were allowed to dash up to the
front of the room and turn them in. And then we had to sit down again
and wait. And wait. And wait!
Eventually the results of the written exams began to trickle in.
Ah, but it was worth it all to get this!
examiner bellowed, "Joe Jones, missed two questions. You passed.
Sam Smith, missed four questions. You passed. Bob Babbitt, missed
seven questions. Tough luck, you failed. Nancy Hoffman, you didn't
miss any. Gary Hoffman, you didn't miss any. Hmmmmm."
At this point, he
paused, looked up, and gave us "the bent eye." The room was
silent for a long moment, then the examiner said to the rest of the
room, "I would be very suspicious, but I know
different versions of the exam." And then he muttered, "They
must've actually studied."
After a hell of a
lot more waiting, we were given our certificates of completion of
examination (CSCE) and allowed to escape. We were so tired that we
gave Winterfest '97 only a cursory look. We just wanted to go home
We had endured.
We had passed our exams. We had become General class amateur
operators. But the fates weren't done with us yet. We got to our car
and discovered that we had a flat tire.
, what a tough test!
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in
Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's
name-- "The Amateur Amateur"--suggests the explorations of
a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His
wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to
contact the author
© 2002 American Radio Relay League