Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I Own A Polar Bear !

What weighs a thousand pounds, comes out only at dawn and lives for Morse code? It's Brutus, the silly polar bear. Born in January, 2003, his natural habitat is on shortwave radio. Brutus lives in Northern Westchester, right outside of New York City. He has also been sited at the home of a fly-fishing lawyer in Savannah, Georgia. We are never sure what he will do next, but he is always out of control ready for comic adventure!

Brutus had an unusual beginning. Believe it or not, in the year 2007, there are still many people who communicate with Morse code. Most all of them are ham radio operators who always seek new adventure and fun. It's not easy to become fluent in Morse, and newcomers cringe and pale when faced with fast-paced dits and dahs from afar. To keep the Morse community fresh and alive, several enthusiastic clubs actively train others in this skill.

One dominant club is called Fists, (referring to the anatomical part needed to operate a key.) I met Gil, callsign KG4VCG, through the Fists' tutorial Code Buddy program. (That's Gil above!) Gil was learning the code and I was his teacher. It all started, via shortwave radio, in the first days of 2003. We mutually decided to meet on the air daily at 5:30 am, right before we both left for work, to practice Morse code on the air with our amateur radio transmitters. At first, it was rough going. I had to send very slowly to Gil so he could register each character accurately. Not much was said, but we were communicating! Gil's comprehension improved rapidly, and before long, the basic material was not enough to fill a conversation. After a basic exchange of name, location and signal strength we needed more to talk about!

Suddenly, Brutus was born! One technique I had used with other Morse code students was to send text that was highly illogical. It demanded that the student receiver of the coded message be very accurate in their "copy." One morning, I told Gil I had a big, white and furry visitor sitting next to me. He was kind of a big guy and really liked to eat nearly anything he could. His name was Brutus and, by the way, he was a polar bear!

Gil was very cool about this! He understood my goofy message word perfect! His response did not miss a beat: "OK on the bear. I'll send up a bucket of fish!" This story went on for days and days and the story grew. "When will the fish get here?" I cried. "The bear is getting really cranky!" I can only imagine what passersby must have thought if they were casually reading our "mail." Was this a spy operation speaking in a cryptic code?

Over the next few weeks of practice, the stories became more and more elaborate. Brutus the polar bear participated in a parade in downtown Savannah, took a specially-arranged plane trip up to New York City and befriended a group of nuns who adopted him and tried to provide him with spiritual guidance. The amounts of fish and ice Gil and I needed for Brutus' well-being were enormous.

We started to build a small audience. When Morse code operators sign off, they often use a quick signature borrowed from the classic vaudeville jingle of closure. One station sends (in Morse code dits) "shine and a haircut" and the other station replies "two bits" (dit dit.) When other stations were listening in, they will also sign "dit dit" to indicate they were monitoring the conversation. I heard extra "dit dits" more and more often as the adventures of Brutus continued.

In the end, Gil became the finest student I had ever tutored. I must have had quite an influence on his perspective on amateur radio. Gil changed his callsign from KG4VCG to NN4CW. This was quite an honor for myself and Mr. Morse! NN refers to the U.S. Navy where many of the finest telegraphers practiced their trade. CW stands for Continuous Wave, the kind of radio signals telegraphers send through the air. Gil kindly sent a couple of momentos of thanks for my tutelage: a Navy sparkproof Morse code key and a keepsake tie clip, in the shape of a code key, embellished with the old logo of RCA (The Radio Corporation of America.) I will always treasure these gifts!

Brutus lives on to this day! Gil and I still mention him frequently in our e-mails and, of course, any time we meet on the air. Pass the seal meat and fish and shovel the ice! Here comes the polar bear of the airwaves! If you are lucky, maybe you'll hear us talking about him someday (especially if you understand Morse code!) For more information regarding the Fists club, surf to: or write to me at Dit dit!

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