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Hamming it up

Belle Plaine man has been operating his ham radio for a half century

By Carlienne A. Frisch

When Carl Gansen of Belle Plaine was 16 years old, he decided the best way to stay in touch with a school friend who had moved away was for them to become ham radio operators. He said his friend told him, “I’ve heard of this cool thing called ham radio.” So Gansen got a license from the Federal Communications Commission and bought used equipment.

Carl Gansen with some of his ham radio equipment at his home in Belle Plaine. Gansen has been communicating with people around the world via the ham radio for 50 years. Contributed photo

“I got it from a couple of ham radio guys in the Twin Cities,” said Gansen, “some beginner’s equipment they had outgrown. Oddly enough, I didn’t hear from my friend, but years later I saw his name in an engineering magazine, and we now correspond by email. He never did get a ham radio license.”

Over the past 50 years, Gansen has accumulated ham radio equipment that fills a counter 18 feet long by 3-1/2 feet high in the basement of his Belle Plaine home. His call letters are WB0CFF (with a slash through the zero).

Gansen admits that he doesn’t know what draws most ham radio operators to the hobby—or obsession--if that description fits.

“I’ve heard all kinds of explanations, and I kind of think most people don’t know why they are called ham radio operators,” he said.

According to Gansen, in the early days of ham radio (the 1920s), operators traditionally had a “ham shack,” often setting up their equipment in a shed or a barn. They called it their ham shack, but Gansen’s basement “shack” has long been referred to as “Dad’s radio room,” a more apt description of the tidy space from which he broadcasts.

“The interest in ham radio literally changed my life,” Gansen said. “All of a sudden, math became important—a lot of formulas are needed when setting up equipment, especially back in the day. And geography became important, talking to people all over the country and all over the world. And language also became important.”

Gansen continued his ham radio hobby when he attended the vocational school in Mankato (now South Central Technical College), where he studied electronics. He then worked for 3M in New Ulm as a service technician, testing new and upgraded products. After being laid off during the mid-1970s oil embargo, he repaired and maintained hospital equipment in a five-state area, keeping his ham radio equipment in his car. He had a special antenna mounted on the car and an antenna at home.

It was while returning from an equipment repair job in Duluth that he met his wife, Georgine, at a roller skating rink in Roseville—another activity for which he stayed prepared.

“I always carried my skates with me,” he said.

The couple was married in 1977.

In his early days of ham radio operation, Gansen kept track of radio contacts in log books, with 800 to 1,000 names in each book. A few years ago, he “cleaned house,” disposing of 20,000-25,000 contacts, of which he said, “I knew I was throwing away history. It’s important to me, but not interesting to others.” For the past eight years, Gansen has logged his contacts in an international database, now totaling 27,000, many of whom have been long-time contacts. Local ham radio friends used to come to Gansen’s house occasionally and take part in an international ham radio contest—talking to people in as many countries and states as possible in an allotted time.

Gansen’s most unusual contact came early in his ham radio “career,” when he was still in high school.

“Late one night, I heard the call sign for the Palmer Ice Station in Antarctica,” he said. “I talked to the ham radio operator and also talked to a guy at the McMurdo Ice Station down there. This was the first time I’d hopped an ocean.” He has been in contact with ham radio operators in nearly 200 countries, some of which, he pointed out, no longer exist, such as some former countries of Africa. His collection of postcards sent to him by ham radio operators includes cards from in the Republic of Croatia, Hungary, and Spain. As a result of conversations with a ham radio operator in Prague, Czech Republic, Gansen and his hobby were featured in a Czech magazine because of his proximity to New Prague, Minnesota.

What do ham radio operators talk about? The first contact is often short, according to Gansen. Topics include how many years the operator has been involved in the hobby, what kind of equipment the operator has, and what facet of the hobby he or she most enjoys. Fewer young people take part, using computers and cell phones to make social contact, but Gansen said, “I know there are people in their 90s.” How many ham radio operators are women? Gansen’s “wild guess” is about five percent.

Carl Ganzen’s equipment is set up in his basement. Much of the equipment was built more than 20 years ago. Contributed photo

Gansen is somewhat of a traditionalist. He explained, “I do almost all of my operating with Morse Code, which I taught myself in summer 1969, and passed a test to get a license to use it. Part of it is a sense of accomplishment, and it’s much more difficult to get a voice signal. Morse Code used to be required, but now fewer than half know Morse Code. Internationally agreed upon codes are Q Codes. ‘QTH Belle Plaine’ means ‘My location is Belle Plaine.’ ‘QTH’? means ‘What is your location?’ Everyone sends Morse Code a little differently—speed, spacing, length of dots and dashes.”

Now, he said, people can get by with simpler equipment.

“The stuff I have downstairs is becoming obsolete, but it’s still very usable. A lot of new equipment is more of a computer than a radio. You can communicate directly from your computer to another person’s computer. All processes are done digitally, and the final step is turning the message into audio. I find that to be boring and sterile. I recognize the voices of a handful of friends—maybe about 50 voices. Many of the original contacts have passed on or reside in a senior building where they are not allowed to have ham radio.” He now spends about eight hours a week on the hobby, rather than eight hours an evening.

In those 18 feet of equipment in the basement, Gansen has a number of different transmitters and receivers. His equipment was built mostly between 1970 and 2001, with a new piece built in 2012.

“For a number of years, I bought one or more old radios every winter and restored them. I had plans to sell them, but never sold them because I enjoyed using them. Some of my radios can do only Morse Code, others both Morse Code and voice,” he said. “I got interested in the evolution of the electronics over time. I have given away a few radios, and I’ve never thought of myself as a collector, but accidentally, I guess, that’s what I am.”

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