Old Ways Old Days

Macalee Hime


The time was 1945. 1 had graduated from high school the year before, and the railroad was taking young ladies to train as telegraphers since the fellows had gone to war.  There was no question about whether I would go to college or go to work. “ We are talking about big money here, $1.07 an hour!” I did my apprenticeship in Temple, Texas for the Gulf Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad. I learned the American Morse code by working the third trick, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. These were not the greatest of working hours, but for a 17-year-old kid, it was no big deal. Other young women were training with me so it was a nice little group.This idyllic period ended suddenly when they sent me to Galveston, Texas the division office. In my opinion everyone, there was old! In retrospect, I realize the other operators were probably 35 and 40 years old, and the wire chief was an ancient man of 55 or thereabouts. I was low on the seniority totem pole so “hello night work” again.

Things rocked along fine for about a year until I learned everything there was to know about my job, and then it was boredom city. I knew no one outside the office except my landlady Mrs. Boch. A typical German lady, she was known for her cooking and neatness;  not exactly the best friend a young girl might hope for.

I didn’t have cooking privileges but occasionally would sneak a cracker from the bin. If I left one crumb on the kitchen cabinet, I heard from Mrs. Boch, loud and clear. She became very upset on one occasion when I washed my clothes in the bathroom sink and hung them on the mahogany bedposts to dry. This was not good.

I was familiar with the USO because during my last two years of high school I sang with a group and we entertained at some nearby USO clubs.  It was great fun, and wonderful to dance to alll those lovely old songs of the forties. I set out to join the club in Galveston, where I felt certain that I would make many friends and perhaps even discover my lifetime mate. (Har!).  First. however, I must outfit myself with some exciting clothes.

My first stop was the fashionable Nathan’s Department Store.  Yesiree, it was fur coat time.  The temperature in Galveston seldom gets below 40 degrees, but I felt that a fur coat was a must.  After trying on a few coats, I opted for a full-length squirrel.  I still remember the luxurious feeling as I ran my fingers over it.  “Put it in layaway”, I  instructed the clerk.  “Honey”, she replied, “are you sure you can afford  this?” “Lady, I work for the railroad”, I assured her.  Two months later I had my coat and some neat looking high heeled ankle strap shoes.

. At the USO I was interviewed by a very nice lady, given an application to till out and return to her.  On this form, there was a place for a reference, where she suggested I enter the name of my minister from back home.  Well, it so happened that back home I belonged to a church that did not believe in dancing.  The bottom line was that my hometown minister did not return the form, and I failed to get in the Galveston USO club.

In those days Galveston was a pretty rough, wide open port town.  My failure to make it into the USO did nothing to enhance my reputation at the office.  My husband whom I met many years later in Dallas is from Galveston.   He swears that I may be the only female in the world that couldn’t get in the USO in Galveston, Texas!


Morse Code Hams Let Their Fingers Do the Talking


August 12, 1999

TWICE a day at 8 A.M. and 7 P.M., Macalee Hime goes to her ”shack,” the room where amateur radio enthusiasts keep their radios and turns on her Kenwood 570d.   Mrs. Hime, whose call sign is AB5TY, tunes the dial to 7.038 megahertz. Before long, she hears from other ham operators, telling her that they are tuned in.

Thus begins another session of Queen Bee Net. The 51 members of the group have been congregating over the radio for the last five years, mostly just to talk about the weather, their families or what they ate for breakfast. During a recent session, about 10 members tuned in from areas like Idaho, Florida, Canada and Mexico.

”It’s a wonderful way to visit with folks,” said Mrs. Hime, a retired court reporter who lives in Goldthwaite, Tex. ”We stay on for about an hour or so, so everyone gets a chance.”

Queen Bee Net is one of many groups, or nets, organized by amateur radio buffs. But while most of these hams communicate by voice, Queen Bee Net, and other nets like it, communicates only through Morse code.

Queen Bee Net does not adhere to strict requirements like those of the Chicken Fat Operators, who restrict membership to operators who can tap and interpret Morse at 40 words per minute, or the Old Old Timers Club, where 40 years of wireless operating experience is required. But all of these nets share a passion for Morse code and a commitment to keeping it alive.

Many could just as easily use their ham radios to speak, or for that matter, could pick up the phone or send messages over the Internet. So why do they keep tapping?

”It’s very relaxing to concentrate on something so different from the rest of the day,” said Nancy Kott, North American representative of Fists, an organization founded in 1987 that promotes the use of Morse code on the ham radio. (”Fist” refers to the individual style in which a ham operator transmits Morse code.) ”You put on your headphones and enter your own little world. You don’t think about your problems when the person you’re communicating with is going along at 40 words per minute.”

Communicating via Morse code indeed requires a great deal of focus. Each letter of the alphabet, numerical symbol and punctuation mark in Universal Morse code (the most widely used code in the United States and Europe, and an adaptation of the original or ”American” code invented in 1844 by Samuel F. B. Morse), is represented by a combination of dots and dashes. Single units of space, or pauses, separate letters, while words are separated by spaces the length of seven dots.

Although most people now learn Morse with the help of audiotapes, reading and memorizing the symbols used to be the common way to learn. Either way, it can take months to learn Morse, and years to achieve tapping speeds faster than the 20-words-per-minute average. Automatic telegraph keys, called paddles, have helped speed up tapping, but many Morse enthusiasts stick to semiautomatic bugs, or manual straight keys, which resemble staplers in the way they move up and down when tapped.

Because it is a language of sorts, the pride of understanding Morse code translates into a certain camaraderie among Morse tapping hams — one that would not necessarily be found, say, in an Internet chat room. ”There’s a significant amount of commitment required to learn this technique, and that may be a motivation to be polite and to foster the kind of communication that was popular in the history of code communication,” said Tom Perera, a ham hobbyist in Montclair, N.J., who has a collection of more than 400 telegraph keys.

Although men far outnumber women on ham radio, female hams who work in Morse code say they are treated with utmost respect by male hams. It is considered bad form, for example, to ask how old someone is. Instead, all women are known as ”YLs,” short for ”Young Ladies,” while men are ”OM,” for ”Old Men.” And the notion of being asked what you are wearing is virtually inconceivable in the Morse world.

”There’s more gentlemanly behavior relaying Morse code than you’d find on the Internet,” Ms. Kott said. ”If they find out you’re a woman, they’re more excited that you’re interested in the hobby. They encourage you rather than hit on you.”

Hams have a shorthand of their own, known as Q signals. ”QTH?,” for example, means ”What’s your location?” while ”QSP” means ”Please repeat the message.” Numerical shorthand, including ”88,” which means ”Love and kisses,” is also universally known.

But with communication technology ever escalating to new heights, some Morse enthusiasts worry that the skill they wish to preserve may soon be undermined by new Government regulations.

At present, all ham operators are required to obtain a license from the Federal Communications Commission. There are six classes of licenses, ranging from No Code Technician, which requires no knowledge of Morse code, to Extra, which requires a proficiency of 20 words per minute. Traveling up the license ladder gives a ham operator access to broader radio frequencies.

In an effort to simplify the amateur radio service license structure, the F.C.C. has proposed reducing the number of license classes from six to four, a step that could reduce the Morse code requirements in the lower-level licenses.

This disturbs many Morse enthusiasts who maintain that Morse is still a fail-safe mode of communication in emergencies and should still be required.

Although it is generally acknowledged that Morse signals can get through in certain noisy radio conditions when other modes, like voice, might not, the United States military and Coast Guard recently phased out Morse code in their operations. It was replaced with the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which uses satellites and computers.

”Morse is not a modern area of communications,” said William Cross, a program analyst at the F.C.C. ”There are still maritime frequencies where people communicate through telegraphy, but it’s no longer part of any Government safety system.”

Morse enthusiasts have personal reasons for wanting to maintain the standards. ”Morse is a skill, and learning it is not fun, but if you don’t have the requirement, people aren’t going to do it,” Ms. Kott said. ”If I hadn’t had the requirement, I would have lost out on a lot. Lowering the requirements would be taking away the opportunity for a lot of people to discover Morse and the huge role it played in history.”

The majority of all hams, however, would like to see the license structure reworked, according to Bob Inderbitzen, the customer service supervisor at the American Radio Relay League. ”There will still be a Morse test for access to shortwave bands,” he said, ”but this is an opportunity to pull things apart and see how we can attract more people to ham radio. Morse is a smaller element of a much larger group of operating modes. Hopefully, the new structure will reflect that.”

Wherever the F.C.C. proposal leads, the Morse code hams will continue to seek one another out. ”Morse code is a lovely old skill, like navigating by the stars,” said Tom Standage, whose book ”The Victorian Internet” (1998, Walker & Company) compared the emergence of Morse telegraphy in the 19th century to the 1990’s Internet. ”Many people feel we are losing something if we allow these old ways to die out, and it’s wonderful there are people who are keeping it going.”




AUBREY KEEL, 97, retired AP telegrapher, died June 25, 1999, in Kansas City, Mo. AP employed 1,500 telegraphers over a span of eight decades and Keel was one of three still living. He was hired by the AP in 1926 in Lubbock, Texas. A 16-year AP veteran telegrapher, Keel first learned Morse Code in 1917 in his hometown of Goldthwaite, Texas. As a telegrapher, he translated words into dots and dashes and transmitted them to another telegrapher on the other end of the wire, who translated the dots and dashes into words.

When the Texas AP phased in the Teletype printer in 1928, Keel adapted to the new technology. He eventually became communications chief in Milwaukee, Des Moines, and Los Angeles before retiring in 1966. He continued to communicate with dots and dashes with retired telegraphers of his ham radio group, the Queen Bee Net.

He also was up on the latest technology, working out of a home command center consisting of two computers, radio gear, a digital camera, a scanner and an antique telegraph key and sounder fitted with a Prince Albert tobacco can alter the telegraph’s pitch. Last year President Lou Boccardi honored Keel at AP’s 150th-anniversary exhibit opening at the Newseum in Arlington, Va. Keel demonstrated the telegraph there. He went on to repeat his Morse Code demonstrations at other AP 150th anniversary celebrations throughout the year.

Aubrey E. Keel, one of three surviving Associated Press telegraphers and one of America’s oldest World War II veterans, died Friday, June 25, 1999, in Kansas City, Missouri. He would have been 98 on July 3rd.

Keel was born July 3, 1901 at Indian Gap Texas but his family soon moved to Goldthwaite. It was at Goldthwaite where at age 17, he learned telegraphy at the Santa Fe Railroad station to help relieve a World War I shortage of operators. He worked for the railroad eight years, and then was hired by the AP in 1926 to copy the news at several Texas newspapers. Greater skill as a telegrapher was required to hold down an AP job than was necessary on railroads.



[The following is a short AUTObiography from Mr. Keel who lived in Kansas, MO. until his death in June of 1999.Mr. Keel submitted this short autobiogrlaphy in 1997.– ray weathers]


Now 96 yrs old. Born July 3, 1901 at Indian Gap, Texas, Hamilton County.

Moved to Goldthwaite, Texas around 1903 where my father ran a grocery store. Attended public schools at Golthwaite.During WW1 there was shortage of telegraph operators so I learned to telegraph at the old Santa Fe RR freight depot in Goldthwaite. Took telegraph operator job at that place, later moving to Temple Santa Fe Telegraph Relay Office.

In 1926, having become a proficient operator I signed on with the Associated Press and was employed in transmitting and receiving news reports via the telegraph which was the only means of sending messages long distances at a fast speed.

Around 1933 The AP discontinued the telegraph in favor of the Teletype automatic printers. I stayed with the AP as a Teletype maintenance man. In 1935 the AP started transmitting pictures via telephone lines and I became a Wirephoto technician, advancing in 1936 to national supervisor in New York City, a position I held until WWII when I entered the military service. I was stationed at the Fort Worth Army Flying Field (now Carswell) until I was discharged.

Returning to the AP at the end of the War I became AP Chief of Communications at Des Moines, then at Los Angles and finally at Milwaukee. I retired in 1966 after the final 25 years in Administrative work for the AP.

My wife, Alcia also was employed by the AP and since she was ten years my junior she continued after my retirement. Her job took her to Kansas City in 1972 . She passed away in 1994 and I remained in Kansas City.

I have one daughter Mari, and one granddaughter Tara Lynn McElyea, living next door to me. Both of us are on adjoining acreages.I am still quite active and able to take care of my acreage and home.

In 1948 I became an amateur radio operator better known as ham operators. My present ham radio call is W0AKL. (That’s a zero in between the W and the A.)

Altho somewhat a novice, I own and use two computers, mostly for E-mail and word processing. I have a flatbed scanner and a digital camera, etc.

Recently the AP flew me and my galfriend to Washington where I put on a Morse telegraph demonstration at the 150th-anniversary celebration of the Associated Press. Altho the telegraph is outmoded (long ago) there still is some interest in it and I have put on numerous demonstrations.