The End of Morse Tue Jul 13 22:22:44 1999
Dillman, W6AWO Chief Operator at K6KPH of the Maritime Radio Historical
The end came
yesterday. We knew it had to come. But the end had been predicted
so many times for so many years while Morse soldiered on, paying no attention,
providing good, reliable service for decades after it was declared dead...
maybe some of thought the day would never come. But when KPH/KFS
signed off the air for the last time yesterday it was the end of commercial
Morse in North America.
It was a sad
day but one I knew I couldn't miss.
WA6OPE and I were invited along with many others to be present at the Half
Moon Bay master station of Globe Wireless from which the final messages
would be sent. I held in my hand two messages I hoped to have transmitted.
They were messages of greeting and farewell from the Maritime Radio Historical
Society and the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park - typed of course
with a mill on historically correct Mackay Radio radiogram blanks.
I secretly dared hope that I myself might be permitted to send these messages.
I brought along my favorite straight key in its carrying case and my radiotelegraph
license just in case.
I have visited KFS
many times over the years. On my first visit the operating room had
nothing but Morse positions. Over the years the number of computers
steadily advanced as the Morse positions retreated to the west end of the
building. When we walked in yesterday both sides of the operating
room were lined with racks holding sleek black computers and monitors.
And way down at the end was the one remaining Morse operating position.
Tom spotted him
first... Paul Zell, the morse operator on duty. We knew him by his
green eyeshade. All real radiotelegraph operators seem to wear green
eyeshades. Pictures I have taken at KFS and KPH decades ago show
men in green eyeshades at the key or the Kleinschmidt. Pictures taken
at those stations decades before that show the same thing. I am convinced
that there is a secret ceremony of the green eyeshade in which the distinctive
headgear is carefully placed upon the head of the operator newly welcomed
into the fraternity. This is of course a ceremony we have not been
permitted to witness, a ceremony that will never again take place.
I sat down next
to Paul Zell as we listened to Russian and Cuban ships calling their respective
coast stations. I realized that true to its nature, Morse will carry
on in other parts of the world even after the keyes in North America are
finally silent. I had to ask Paul the question... "How are you feeling
about today?" An impossible question to answer but he answered it.
"CW was my life," he said and turned back to the receiver.
More people started
to arrive, a surprising number of reporters among them. But the real dignitaries
in my eyes were the radio men and women who knew they had to be there on
this day. Jack Martini, manager of KPH when it shut down (he intentionally
left the receivers on when he left). Ray Smith, the operator who
sent the farewell message when KPH at Bolinas/Pt. Reyes shut down.
John Brundage, manager of KFS in its golden age of Morse. Denise,
the first female coast station operator on the west coast. Rex Patterson,
chief engineer at KFS in its glory years. And many more. We
swapped stories and I showed them my photo album. We ate from the
delicious spread of food provided by Peter Kierans of Globe Wireless.
But our eyes kept glancing at the clock. It was now less than two
hours to the end.
I finally screwed
my courage to the sticking place and asked Tim Gorman, Director of Operations,
if my messages might be sent and if, perhaps, I might be permitted to send
them. Tim had met me only that day. I might be a fumble-fisted
lid for all he knew. And he was busy with the press and with all
the details of the ceremony. "We'll see...", he said. And that
was enough for me.
Now the final transmissions
from WCC/WNU began. We copied them off the air. The room fell silent.
I noticed one man in particular. He was probably the oldest person
there but had a presence that we used to call "spry". He had a quick
laugh and twinkling eye. I watched him now. He stood leaning
forward, eyes closed, as the sound washed over him.... drinking in... the
Morse. He was a pioneer operator, the genuine article, no doubt about
it. I wanted to meet him, to ask his name at least. But of course
I couldn't possibly interrupt his reverie.
Paul Zell sent
the first of the KFS/KPH sign off messages from the local position.
Again we were all silent and when he finished... there was a round of applause!
Applause for a radiotelegraph operator! Well deserved applause, deserved
by every radiotelegraph operator everywhere, applause unheard for 80 years.
Paul made a small, embarrassed nod of his head, accepting the tribute for
himself and for all the operators on all the ships and at all the coast
stations over the years.
Then he copied
the last commercial message KFS would receive, from the Liberty ship Jeremiah
O'Brien/KXCH on 500kc. The op on the O'Brien said he would standby
until 15 past the hour. Zell replied "better make that 18 past, OM."
The operator on the O'Brien understood and said that yes, he would observe
the silent period - which of course is no longer required by regulation
but is absolutely required by tradition. Then Paul said that he'd
standby "on 600". The crowd got a big kick out of that - 600 meters
instead of 500kc. Subtle, but all the more meaningful for that.
I saw Tim approaching
me across the room. "Get your key...", he said. Get your key!
Holy mackerel, they were going to let me do it! So I got out the
key, gathered up my messages, and plugged in. But then I realized:
the best Morse operators in the country... the best Morse operators in
the world, probably... would be listening to every dot and dash I sent!
They would be too polite to say anything if I flubbed it of course... but
they and I and everyone else in the room and all the ships at sea would
know! My palms started to sweat at that thought but there was no
turning back now. I took Paul Zell's seat. I sent a couple
if Vs to see if there was side tone in the 'phones. The knob on the
key was loose! I tightened that up... and began to send.
I sent the first
message from the Maritime Radio Historical Society and all went well.
Then I signed the station calls.. "de KPH/KFS". Tom and a few others
noticed that I sent KPH first and understood why. Then the second
message from the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park. And the
calls again... followed by my "sine"... and K. I had gotten through
it! And there was a round of applause for me! Thoroughly undeserved
but very much appreciated. Someone even said, "Nice fist".
High praise indeed in that crowd.
Then the final
messages from KFS/KPH began. Paul Zell sent the first ones. Then
Tim Gorman sat down and proved himself to be much more than just a competent
manager. He sent the final message in meticulous Morse using the
chrome-plated Vibroplex, signed off with "What hath God wrought"... then
SK... and it was over.
There were wet eyes
in that room, mine among them. I heard more than one tough-looking
old timer mumble, "I didn't think it would get to me, but..." and then
I had one further
item on my agenda: to get my license endorsed showing me as an operator
at KFS/KPH on the last day of North American Morse. Once again Tim
Gorman showed himself to be a gracious and understanding man as he took
pen in hand to write "satisfactory" in the blank provided for operator
evaluation on the back of the license and add his signature.
Finally it was
time to go. I gathered up my key and my photos and my papers and
shook hands once more with all the great men and women who were there.
And finally we were heading north on highway 1 with the beautiful Pacific
sunset on our left and the green coastal hills on the right. "That
was one helluva day," Tom said. "Yep," I agreed.
Dillman, W6AWO Chief Operator at K6KPH of the Maritime
Radio Historical Society
Heavy Metal: Harleys, Willys and Radios Over100lbs.