"Nice talking to you, Bir!"

May 20, 2005

One of the wonderful things about the hobby of ham radio is the camaraderie among the participants which transcends social status, religion, language and country. Radio hams from anywhere are instantly on the same wave length when they meet in person. I had an experience while serving in the U. S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division which exemplifies that camaraderie.

I was a radio operator attached to the Headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division Artillery. Actually, my complete title was 'radio-teletypewriter operator' and I had my own truck with a box-like radio shack on the back. In the radio shack I had the usual transmitter/receiver combination as well as teletype machines and a device which created tapes by punching holes in the tape. My job specifications required a working knowledge of Morse code which I was quite good at because I'd been a ham since I was eleven years old.

Because I was a ham and the equipment in my truck could operate on the amateur frequencies, I would often attempt contact with places nearby the homes of some of guys in my unit. Many times I would contact amateur stations near someone's home and the operator near their home would make a call to the parents, wife or girlfriend. The guys loved it because they could talk home for free. I often spent more time using my radios for contacts on the ham frequencies than on the military networks.

One of my favorite forms of communication is using Morse code. In the ham radio community, Morse code is referred to as CW--for continuous wave--by everyone in the hobby. Because I liked CW operation so much I would often go on the ham bands with a code sending device known world-wide as 'a bug.' The bug is a mechanical device with a paddle-like assembly which can produce a continuous set of dots if pressed one way and a single long dash if pressed the other way.

Because learning to send with a bug is very difficult, no one in the military used bugs; they used a simpler device known as a key. The key allows the sending of dots and dashes by an up and down tapping motion on the key. Operation of a key is intuitively simple but sending with a bug takes many hours of practice.

One day I was sitting in my truck trying to look busy, when our radio sergeant stuck his head in and said, "Sayers, clean up in there and police around the outside of the truck. A General and some really big wigs are coming by for some kind of tour. Look busy."

"Sergeant, you know how good I am at looking busy," I laughed, "you never know if I'm working or not."

"Pick up any butts and don't get into any trouble," he grinned as he walked away to get the other guys ready for the upcoming tour.

A half hour or so later one of the guys yelled, "Oh, man, look at that! What the hell is going on?"

I looked down the line of trucks in our motor pool to an entourage of two dozen or more people walking slowly toward us. We all gawked in amazement as none of us had seen a tour with so many people.

The 82nd Airborne Division was a showcase operation. We had a reputation from kicking butt during World War II and the Army loved to show us off. We were always having tours dignitaries and photographers...but nothing like this tour.

As the group came closer to my truck I could tell that the person who was the focal point of the tour was wearing a large, purple turban; he walked carrying a swagger stick and he had a thick, full beard. He was quite obviously not an American. The turban caused me to think that he was Indian or Pakistani.

From my vantage point sitting in my radio van I was about five feet off the ground and could easily see into the approaching crowd. I noticed what I thought was a Brigadier General and many other officers of high rank. Clearly, the tour was for the officer in the purple turban.

As the group approached my truck, I noticed the turbaned officer look up at the tall antenna I had erected from my truck so I that could contact people on the amateur frequencies. He kept looking my truck over and finally said something to the general and walked directly to my van.

"Oh, shit," I thought. "What now?" as he came right up to door and gazed into the van. Military protocol is such that a lowly enlisted man doesn't speak to an officer unless spoken to first. I did what I thought polite and nodded to him as he thoroughly investigated the inside of my van. He looked intently at ever piece of equipment.

Finally, he saw the bug sitting on the operating console. He took the swagger stick from under his arm and pointed to the bug while asking, in a thick British accent, "What do use that  for, soldier?", with a very obvious emphasis on the 'that' in his question.

"Oh, damn," I thought, "I'm caught." I stammered a bit and said, "Well, sir, I'm a radio amateur and I use the bug to communicate on the amateur frequencies if I have the time."

"Oh, really, you like CW?" he smiled a big, friendly grin. "What's your call?"

"My call is W3ZLU, sir. And, yes, I love to operate CW."

With that, he reached out his hand to shake mine and said, "Glad to me you, I'm VU2BP! You can call me Bir. May I come in to look around?"

"Well, glad to me you, too, sir. Sure, come on in; I'll give you the full tour." Which was a total joke because once he was inside and sitting next to me the van was full and we couldn't move.

By his "VU" call letter prefix I immediately knew that he was from India.

We sat side by side, so close in fact that our knees were touching, and I explained the equipment and my job. We talked about ham radio quite a bit.

He asked if I had talked to a group of Indian amateurs who were making history in the ham community by operating from various remote, uninhabited islands in middle of the Indian Ocean. I told him I had heard them but couldn't make myself heard with the type of antenna I was using.

He laughed and told me how glad he was to meet someone with whom he could actually talk. He hated tours.

We made small talk and gossip about things going on in the amateur world and finally, we heard from outside, "Ah, pardon me, Sir, but we really should be getting on with the tour. The heavy drop demonstration out on Sicily DZ can't be changed and we'll be late if we don't move on."

He smiled at me and said, "Well, back to work!"

He exited the van with a jump to ground. He turned around to face me; snapped his heels together; threw his hand up in a British-style palm outward salute and said with a grin, "It sure was nice to meet you, Bernie. Hope to work you on 20 meters some day!"

I returned the salute with an even bigger grin and said, "It was nice talking to you, Bir. I hope we can make that QSO."

Our 82nd Airborne officers and the surrounding entourage were astounded. Their mouths were open in amazement. They all had a look of disbelief on their face of "...did that enlisted soldier just call that officer by his first name?!"

Bir walked away, took a few steps, and turned around to say, "Bernie, I'll send you a QSL for our QSO."

Everyone in the group looked on trying to figure out what Bir had just said to me. "I would like that! Thank you, Bir!" I said with a very big grin.

Two or three days later, I was called to our Headquarters Orderly Room. As usual, I thought, what now?

When I reported in I the command sergeant major me handed an envelope on which was written, "Bernie, W3ZLU, 82nd Airborne Division."

When I opened it I found a QSL card from VU2BP. A QSL is a post card with the location, equipment and other information and is used as confirmation of a contact, known as a QSO, with another station.

Bir didn't know anything about me except my first name, my call and and the fact that I was with the 82nd Airborne Division. I was later told by my commanding officer that Bir had given the QSL card to the General who accompanied him on the tour and asked the General if he could deliver the QSL to me. 

As you can see from the QSL Bir wrote "Personal QSO" and signed his name "Bir".

I found out later that Bir was the head of the Indian Army Signal corps, that he was airborne qualified and that held a rank equal to our Major General. See a link to VU2BP's QTH.

I have hundreds of cards from all over the world and at least one card from over 125 foreign countries but the QSL from Bir, VU2BP, is one of my favorites.

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Copyright © 2010 Bernard Sayers