The Amateur Amateur: Upgrading Made Difficult

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
March 20, 2002

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!

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.

general paper mess

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 copies of 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 direction.

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 please-please-please 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

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.)

The examiners 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 were 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.

Nancy's general license

Ah, but it was worth it all to get this!

The head 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 they took 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 and collapse.

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.

Man, 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 via email.

© 2002 American Radio Relay League


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