Dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot.
The above code, translated into letters, is SOS, probably the most well known signal of Morse code.
Burt VanderClute, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and member of the Cape Fear Amateur Radio Society, can key Morse code to talk with other operators all around the world while driving — safely, of course.
“It’s pretty easy,” he said. “You only need two fingers.”
VanderClute, from Valley Stream in Long Island, N.Y., and the father of two daughters, Amy and Lia, earned his amateur radio license after he discovered he could earn two merit badges for Boy Scouts.
At age 12, he found himself in front of an intimidating Federal Communications Commission examiner asking him to send and receive Morse code, answer questions about regulations and sketch electrical diagrams of components used in amateur radio.
“The test is not nearly as difficult now as it was back then. (The examiner said), ‘draw me an example of a Colpitts oscillator.’ Back then, we had to know that stuff. Now they just show you a picture and ask you, ‘Is this a Colpitts oscillator?’ Is it a Faraday oscillator?” said VanderClute.
His father decided to get his license seven months later and it was a hobby they shared for many years.
“Until he died, we talked every other day, every other week. I took off from Fayetteville, headed to Kansas and put a radio in the car. From the time I pulled out of the driveway in Fayetteville until the time I pulled into the gate at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, my father and I were talking on the radio. At that time he was blind. I’m describing everything that I’m seeing and every place I’m going. It was probably the best trip I ever took with my father. He wasn’t even with me but it was nice,” VanderClute said.
When he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, VanderClute, call sign N4ERM, found that his radio skills came in handy.
“If somebody gave me a radio, I could always communicate back to the states, whether I was in Turkey, Ethiopia, Germany, Brazil or Japan, it didn’t make any difference,” he said.
When VanderClute was stationed for six years in Turkey, it was illegal to operate an amateur radio in that country.
“They really got beat up in World War I so they didn’t want to get involved in another war. Prior to World War II, they wrote a series of laws that made it illegal to operate a radio in Turkey. After the war, they never took those regulations down. They just ignored it,” he said.
He found out about the Turkish Amateur Radio Club when he picked up their magazine on a newsstand and couldn’t believe that they openly advertised their club when the law was still on the books.
“We got together with some guys and rewrote the Turkish Amateur Radio Law and took it to the Turkish Parliament and it passed. We used the American law, the Swiss law, the German law and French. We combined the best parts of those together and made something that we thought the Turkish government would approve of. That was in 1979,” he said.
The group include some of the first legally, licensed Turkish Amateurs including Dr. Unal Akbal, TA1A; Salim Unuver, Esq. T1B; M. Metin Kutlu, TA1C; Kadri Basak, TA1D; Kadri Doda, TA1G; and others in 1979 through 1980. This group developed the Turkish Amateur Radio Regulations, which became law in 1983.
VanderClute said he was glad he could help his fellow radio enthusiasts.
“I enjoy getting out there and practicing (my Turkish) with those guys,” he said.
When VanderClute and his wife, Sara, moved to Fayetteville in 1975, he joined CFARS. By then he was building his own equipment; from antennas to Morse code keys.
“I’m also known as ‘El Cheapo’ If you can buy it or build it, I’ll build it because it’s cheaper than buying it,” said VanderClute.
His radio room is filled with different equipment, spare parts and various containers from pill bottles to metal tins. A map showing different country codes hangs on the ceiling above his workstation. VanderClute’s pride and joy is an automatic antenna tuner he received as a Christmas present from his wife.
“After I finished building it, (the device) worked the first time,” he said.
The amateur radio club is made up of mostly people who are stationed or work at Fort Bragg, said Vanderclute. They are also very active in the community, helping during potential natural disasters, providing communication for local events and giving the amateur radio community the extra boost to talk all over the world.
The club owns several repeaters, consisting of a radio receiver connected to a transmitter. The radio signal is received, amplified and retransmitted, Vanderclute explained. One of the repeaters is located on the top of the Soldier Support Center. They also have a tower at Methodist University giving communication benefits to both CFARS and the university.
When there’s adverse weather inlcuding a possible tornado or hurricane, CFARS is ready to communicate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Raleigh, N.C., said VanderClute.
“Cumberland County has seven shelters. We have an antenna and cable at each shelter. We can deploy to the shelters and hook up our radios to an outside antenna and use a hand-held radio and talk amongst ourselves. If the county has to activate one of their shelters, they also activate their emergency center downtown in the law enforcement center. We have three radios down in the basement of the law enforcement center that Cumberland County provided but they don’t have operators. So we provide the operators and the monitors,” he said.
The National Weather Service also uses ham radio operators to ‘weatherspot’ through a program called Skywarn.
“If we have inclement weather in the area, the National Weather Service will activate the Skywarn net. We have a bunch of guys at work or home or driving someplace. They report what they’re seeing for the weather,” said VanderClute. “Nearly half of the National Weather Service (personnel) are amateur radio operators because they understand it’s handy to have these guys on the street.”
CFARS also preserves the history of amateur radio. During the Heroes Homecoming event in November 2011, the club hosted a ‘MARS and Ham Radio - Talking Home From Vietnam’ display that took place during the entire event.
During the Vietnam War, deployed personnel had the opportunity to send messages, called MARSGrams, or place a phone call, also known as a phone patch, home to Family and loved ones. Visitors during the homecoming celebration were able to use the same technology to experience the call themselves, said Vanderclute.
The club applied for a special event call sign, also known as a 1X1 call sign, N4V, short for North Carolina for Veterans, said Vanderclute.
“We put a station by the Airborne and Special Operations Museum. We let people phone patch. We posted the QSL card on the web pages. Some people worked us (made a connection) just to get that QSL card,” he said.
QSL is a Morse code ‘Q signal’ or abbreviation, meaning acknowledging receipt. Many amateur radio operators make their own QSL cards, similar to post cards, and send them to other operators around the world. Collecting the cards is a hobby in itself.
Vanderclute has a collection of QSL cards from around the world. He has made contact with more than 200 countries. Many of the QSL cards have photographs of the area where the operator lives. Some of them are from people he talks with over the radio and some are from operators who use Morse code, which he prefers over talk radio.
“Atmospherics sometimes compromise talk radio. Morse code will get through where talk will not. If you’re trying to talk to a Russian and you don’t speak Russian or he doesn’t speak English, if you can talk code, you can talk to each other. You can get directions, you can get their name, their address,” said VanderClute.
Who was the most unusual person he met on the radio?
“Too many unusuals. I talked to this guy and he sent his call sign and a stroke PM (/PM). When I’m driving, and I’m talking on the radio, I send my call sign and a stroke M (/M) – that means mobile. Sometimes when somebody’s out on a ship, they will send their call sign, stroke and MM, which is maritime mobile. I never talked to a guy with a stroke PM. So I had to go back and say what the heck is PM? He told me, ‘pedestrian mobile.’ He’s operating while he’s walking,” said Vanderclute. The operator sent VanderClute a QSL card with a picture of him walking and transmitting in the Valley of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado.
VanderClute also goes outdoors with his ‘go-to-the-woods’ pack containing a radio, three different antennas, tape, bug spray and sunblock. Boy Scouts are always prepared, he said. His other favorite slogan is ‘When all else fails — amateur radio.’
The best way to find out more about amateur radio is to contact CFARS at www.cfarsnc.org, said VanderClute.