The Great Spy Hunt
Mr. Zzikxz gave me a huge old radio, which would receive all sorts of short wave bands. He said that if people knew that he had a short wave radio at his place, they would accuse him of being a German spy and he would be arrested and shipped off to a prisoner of war camp. He said that the FBI had already been by to talk with him about his political affiliations and feelings but he convinced them that he was no threat to anyone. He told them that he certainly had no love for Germany, mainly because they had taken over his country during World War One. However, since he spoke with an accent, everyone naturally suspected that he was a spy. He said that he used to listen to the classical music broadcast from Austria on the short wave bands but when World War II broke out, all those stations went off the air.
The radio was much too heavy for me to carry home so my dad brought it home for me in his pickup truck and we put it in my workshop. Actually, what I called my workshop was nothing but an old feed shed next to the windmill, but it was a place where I could go to tinker with all sorts of things that boys can find to take apart or fiddle with. I strung up a copper wire antenna from the roof of the house to the platform on the windmill tower and down into the shed. The ground wire was connected to a big nail driven into the ground. I could make the ground work better by pouring water on it.
To my utter surprise, on the regular broadcast band the radio would pick up radio stations all over the nation. I could easily bring in places like Omaha, Denver and Dallas, but on good nights, I could hear New York City and Los Angeles. Our radio in the house would only get Amarillo, Wichita Falls and XERO, the Mexican radio station down in Clint, Texas where they were always advertising records, bibles and baby chickens.
Other than the usual afternoon serials that we boys always listened to, there was nothing worthwhile on the regular dial. It was on the short wave bands where I discovered all sorts of interesting conversations to listen in on. I found the frequency where the Army pilots were talking to one another and the one they used for talking to the control tower when they were ready to land. They were always calling themselves secret names like Bluebird Two and Fox Seven but we knew that they were pilots because we could hear the engines in the background.
My cousin who lived about a block away and I were in the Boy Scouts at the time and there was a merit badge for learning Morse Code, so we got a couple books and set out to earn that badge. In order to be able to practice, we ran a wire from his bedroom to my workshop and began to peck away, referring to our codebook before each letter. In a matter of a few weeks, were able to send and receive almost fast enough to pass the test for our merit badges.
In the process of learning the Morse Code, I read everything that I could find in the local library on radios and electronics. One day I was talking with Mr. Zzikxz about radios and he gave me an old book, which told how to build what was called a Damped Wave or Spark Gap Transmitter. The article said that it was so simple to build that anyone could make one out of parts from old radios, so I set about building one of my own.
When the transmitter was done, I couldn't wait to try it out. When I turned the thing on and closed the key, blue sparks danced between the copper spark plates. It seemed to be working but there was no way I could be sure without help, so I took it to my cousin's chicken house and told him to start transmitting and I would listen on my short wave radio. Sure enough, it came in loud and clear but it sounded more like harsh static than the clear tones that I had expected.
It's rather difficult to carry on much of a two-way conversation with only one transmitter and one receiver, but we worked out a system. My cousin would transmit a message and I would write it down. Then I would race over to the transmitter in his chicken house while he ran to the workshop and I would tap out an answer to him. My homebuilt transmitter was working just great; in fact, it was working all too great.
The worst problem with this type of transmitter, as we were to learn later, is that there is no modulation of the signal to control the frequency and it spread from one end of the band to the other and probably beyond. Our coded messages could be heard on every radio in town, which made us very unpopular with housewives who were trying to listen to their favorite soap operas, which came on at about the same time that we got home from school. The only thing that saved us from their wrath was that everyone figured that it was Mr. Zzikxz doing one of his experiments.
Little did we realize that once a signal is sent into the air, it doesn't simply stop at the person who is receiving it, but can travel many miles in all directions. Among our listeners were all the military pilots flying from the military airfields at Amarillo and Dalhart. As is usual in the military minds, which were always a bit paranoid in their thinking, they decided that they had discovered a spy in their midst. It didn't matter the least that the rather inane messages that they were receiving were being transmitted in a laboriously slow manner, but no spy in his right mind would use the same frequencies as those being used by the military.
Since the military had all sorts of signal tracing equipment, it didn't take long through the process of triangulation, for them to discover that Stinnett was the general location of the source of the transmissions. Each time that we would go on the air, they would send airplanes aloft with direction finding equipment and they would head straight for Stinnett. Since we were far more interested in Army airplanes flying over than we were in playing with the transmitter, the instant that we heard an approaching airplane, we would turn the radio off and run outside to watch it fly over.
The Army Air Corps was having little luck in finding the transmitter on their own, so they turned the matter over to the FBI. Since the FBI already had a suspected spy by the name of Mr. Zzikxz living in the area where the Army said the signals were coming from, it took almost no time at all for them to show up on his doorstep. Armed with search warrants, they began to dig through his books, files and notes. The more that they searched, the more convinced they became that they had stumbled upon a man who was a threat to the national security. They were about to haul him off in handcuffs when the man running the direction finding equipment notified them that the transmitter was back on the air. I'm sure that it was quite a blow to their egos to learn that while they had seemingly discovered their spy, he was transmitting coded signals right under their noses.
With their mobile direction finding equipment, it didn't take the FBI long to zero in on the chicken house where the clandestine transmitter was located. As blue sparks danced between the copper plates of the spark gap, the door burst open and I looked up into the faces of two of the meanest looking men I had ever seen. They were dressed in expensive suits and holding guns in their hands. One of them growled, "This is the FBI, don't move."
There were dozens of forms for our parents to fill out and sign while several of the FBI agents lectured my cousin and me about all the problems that we had caused and made us promised that we would never build or operate any kind of transmitter again without getting the proper license. When they were finished with us, our parents made us apologized to Mr. Zzikxz for all the trouble that we caused him. He just smiled as if he had known all the time what we were going to do.
The electronics expert who checked out the transmitter shook his head in disbelief as he watched blue sparks dance between the copper plates. When he was satisfied that it really worked, he boxed it up to take it with him. He even took the book that told how to make it. I'm sure that those relics of the bygone days as a ham radio operator are still labeled "TOP SECRET" and gathering dust in some FBI warehouse today.
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Copyright © 2001 by Jim Foreman