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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Waltonian


Walter is Walter.

Of the thousands and thousands of people I've met in this world, near home and around the globe, I believe that Walter is one of the very few who simply is who he is.

How many of you have heard of the J-Pole? One at a time, please. Any guesses as to what it is? Alright, I'll break the suspense. It's a vertically-polarized omnidirectional 2-meter antenna. Feel better now? 2 meters is the amateur radio band that covers 144 to 148 Mhz. This band is named after the approximate wavelength for that frequency range, and is used mainly for local communications. For reference porpoises, your FM radio receives in the FM broadcast band which covers approx. 88 to 107 Mhz (3 meters, BTW). The J-Pole is a popular antenna among hams as it is one you can buld yourself, entirely from ½" copper pipe and fittings. It's called the "plumber's dream" for this reason. I'm picturing a plumber waking up in the morning and saying, "Honey, I had that dream again, you know the one about making an antenna out of ½" copper pipe? I've got a meeting with the boss today - do I have any clean lowriders?"

You can also construct a J-Pole from 300 ohm parallel feedline (the kind of wire you used to connect the rabbit ears to the TV back in the Pleistocene era). That version called the hotel room J-Pole because you can use it to call the police when OJ breaks in to try to get his stuff back, I mean you can roll it up and put it in your suitcase for a convenient antenna to use while traveling on business.

There's also the Super J-Pole, which is a variant of the Plumber's Dream. The Super J has an additional element added on to the long leg of the J, connected via a hairpin coupler with a 270 degree curve in it. Just look at the picture, okay? This purportedly adds another couple dB of horizontal gain. In case you're wondering how the concept of "gain" applies to an omnidirectional antenna, think of the antenna as a point in the middle of a round balloon, and the surface of the balloon represents how far the antenna's transmissions can reach. Adding gain is like squashing the balloon vertically to make its sides bulge out. So you can reach further out horizontally at the expense of diminished effectiveness in the vertical direction. No big loss, as the geese and sparrows don't talk on 2 meters anyway. Why this works is a whole nuther story. I hold bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering (go Blue), and have been an amateur radio operator for over 10 years, yet any antenna more complicated than a half-wave dipole is still black magic to me. So really, it's not you.

Walter (or "Valtah" as we occasionally call him in honor of Andy, another local ham who sports a pronounced Austrian accent) has been officially unemployed for as long as I've known him. Prior to my meeting him, he purportedly was a contract engineer doing statistical analysis, so he's no dummy, but for the duration of our acquaintance, he's subsisted on odd jobs, thrift, and self-sufficiency. He lives alone, last I've heard, but he has a daughter, and presumably an ex-wife somewhere as well. But I guess it would not be quite accurate to say he lives alone - actually he has, or at least had, a cat, plus dozens of antique radios.

The Super J-Pole took on a new name among our ham radio buddies in the northern Detroit suburban area. There, it's called the xxJ-Pole (I'm not indicating what xx is, as that would give away his callsign, which would provide means for positively identifying Walter; I studiously avoid identifying my subjects without their permission here in the VOBNS). This came about as a result of an "antenna party" that some of the local radio club fellows had at Walter's house, in which they mass-produced a number of Super J-Poles. I did not attend, but bought one specimen for the price of the parts, which was about $20. I made quite a lot of contacts with it. I gave it away, as I did with most of my antennas prior to moving to the Washington, DO area. "Scratchy" is the current proud owner of same.

So picture this - a relatively modest 3-bedroom ranch house, with every shelf, table, and counter in every room filled with antique radios, most of which actually work. What you're picturing is the ad hoc museum we affectionately call The Waltonian. And Walter can tell you about each one of them. Unfortunately, you'll have to take my word for it, as the Waltonian is not open to the public, particularly that part of the public that's with a collection agency.

We love to categorize people, don't we? We categorize ourselves too, for that matter. Usually we use occupations or professions, but also we tend to use belief systems and sometimes hobbies or sports. He's a dentist, she's a teacher, I'm an engineer, he's a Christian, she's a Hindu, he's a golfer, you get the picture. And for better or worse, our categories tend to drive who we really are, rather than the other way around. Do first grade teachers dress that way because they're first grade teachers, or do people who happen to dress that way generally tend toward the profession of teaching first graders? It's usually only at a funeral when we put all the pieces together, and then what do we have? A well-understood, properly-categorized corpse! Anyway, Walter never explicitly said to me, "Bruck, quit categorizing people; just appreciate them for who they are." But although he probably doesn't even realize it, this is one of the many things he showed me. How? Just by being himself, and perhaps partially by not having the same job for more than six months at a time. He also showed me how to construct a 6-meter beam (unidirectional horizontally-polarized antenna for the 50-54 Mhz amateur radio band) from an old TV antenna. Old TV antennas are log-periodic dipoles, BTW; in case you ever wanted to know how a TV antenna can receive signals over such a wide range of frequencies, there's your answer. It's all a moot point anyway, since by now, most of you who dwell in the TV matrix use cable or satellite for your daily programming.

So, you're probably thinking, okay, that J-Pole is a cool antenna, so much so that I am taking off of work early today to go study for my ham radio license, so I too can use one, but… why 2-meters only? Couldn’t the same concept be scaled up or down to work on 6 meters, or even the 220 or 440 Mhz bands? The answer is yes, but we don't recommend it. Instead, just try to see people for who they really are, and thereby start tearing down the walls of that categorical prison you've spent your life constructing for them and yourself. Freedom!

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