The Dirty Old Men seemed neither dirty nor old, although I never saw them, so these were points I could never verify. There were four of them, each nearing retirement age, their children grown and scattered far from the swamps of south Florida, where each self-declared Dirty Old Man lived with a wife called ‘my old lady’ or ‘the ball-and-chain.’ The Dirty Old Men worked strange jobs with long, technical titles, and spent their spare time tinkering with heaps of radio equipment in their air-conditioned garages. I was ten years old when I met them, and would have normally greeted them like any grown-up—my head shyly bowed, my every word crafted to dead-end the conversation. But the Dirty Old Men and I shared something that empowered me, that placed me in a gritty league my classmates would never achieve, and that made us equals.
And this something was ham radio.
Ham radio is the bald eagle of mass communication, a noble and time-honored institution that’s slightly silly-looking and teetering on extinction. Unlike CB radio, whose easy accessibility makes it the seedy Internet chat rooms of the airwaves, ham radio requires a license and a working knowledge of Morse code. People study for months to pass a licensing test, ultimately cramming into small hotel conference rooms and sweating over long-form multiple-choice questionnaires. When I took the test at age 10, I was delighted to find such a great equalizer. At school I had to take tests every day, and here were adults completely out of their element, hunched over stacks of paper, they and their number-2 pencils crumbling under the same pressure I felt in math class. Watching them suffer was a unique form of pleasure.
The tests make ham radio intentionally exclusive, and so those who make it past the gates quickly bond. They speak in jargon, attend conferences, grant each other awards, and exchange postcards to commemorate mundane conversations. They create small communities, where they talk about their hobby with the type of people they don’t see every day—the people who care. It is a fiercely loyal and wholly devoted enclave, and from the moment I heard a voice crackle over the ambient airwaves at a science summer camp, the enthusiasm overcame me.
There was one catch, though: With precious rare exception the world of ham radio is inhabited by old men—making me, the elementary-school student, an outsider by nature. This shouldn’t have been a surprise. None of my peers had any interest in the radios, a point that was never more evident than in the sixth grade, when we were told to dress up as a person of historical inspiration. Everyone chose ancient royalty or sports figures, but I selected Samuel Morse, the inventor of the eponymous code. I couldn’t find many pictures of Morse, and only knew he was a pudgy man with a large, bushy beard. So, I arrived in class looking like an emaciated Santa, my tiny face disappearing beneath a pillow of cotton balls. But instead of a red jumper I wore jeans and a T-shirt, upon which my mother and I painted a coded version of Morse’s historical first transmission—the daunting and eerily apprehensive words, ‘What hath God wrought?’—in a series of red dots and dashes. It was supposed to be instructive, but looked more like the outcome of a Satanic geometry lesson, and the other students greeted me with wry, reserved grins.
With no classmates to relate to, by default or desperation, the old men on the radio soon seemed a comfortable fit. I considered them the keepers of tradition, the elders from which I could learn. For years I rushed home from school to my room and my radio, where I engaged in conversations with men seven times my age. I made arcane goals, aiming to speak to someone on every continent or in every state, and I drew up checklists and hung large maps to chart my progress. The more I became more engrossed, the less the neighborhood kids stopped by to see if I could come out and play. I had become an ‘indoor kid.’ They knew the signs: My skin grew paler every day.
As a beginner I held the lowest of the five license classes, which afforded me access to only a small range of frequencies with international reach. At night, though, atmospheric conditions practically closed up on them—and it was then, under the cloak of static, that the Dirty Old Men would appear.
I eavesdropped on them for weeks, learning their names and locations, piecing together any back-story I could find. I learned how the group started as a nightly meeting of two friends, and how by the time I found them there were four regulars and a host of casual visitors. They all lived within a few miles of me, and their nightly meetings were their chance to bond as males—a veritable football game for men who hated sports.
They didn’t talk about anything particularly exciting, but it was the new, different flow of their conversations that drew me in. Children talk in announcements, declaring their favorite this or that in arrhythmic staccato, erupting in tiny bursts of selfish information. They’re so consumed by their next sentence, so eager to interject, that they listen for spaces between words instead of the words themselves. I did this too, of course, but I knew adult conversation was different. And from behind the mask of a microphone, where my physical frame wouldn’t underscore my ambition, I wanted to see how well I fit in.
One night, I made my move. ‘Um, excuse me, hi,’ I said, trying to hide my very obvious, prepubescent voice.
The air went silent. Then Norm, the group leader, came back: ‘Hi, who’s this?’
I had already forgotten protocol. Whenever a conversation on ham radio starts the two parties must identify themselves with their call letters. ‘KD4DYV,’ I shot back, dropping an obvious two octaves to make a better impression.
Norm welcomed me, and we went through the typical small talk: antenna sizes, radio models, number of gadgets, and useless accessories. Then my parents opened my door, told me it was bedtime, and I told the Dirty Old Men that I had to go.
‘Well, come back and visit anytime,’ Norm said. ‘It’s nice to hear a new voice out there.’
The others agreed. I thanked them, and went to sleep happy.
I returned almost every night, and was filled with pride when new people visited and Norm introduced me as a regular—‘the youngest of the Old Men,’ he’d say. I didn’t have much to contribute to their conversations, and so I’d let them carry on as usual, content that I didn’t need to participate to belong.
If I was a novelty to the Dirty Old Men, they never said as much. I was a rare youthful voice, a sign that ham radio had a future. And while they always welcomed me, they never once asked how my school day went, an omission I was grateful for. They treated me like any other old man—except when I questioned something. At the mere hint of my interest in a subject they doled out advice in long, rambling soliloquies, helping me fine-tune my radio or lecturing me on the nuances of atmospheric conditions. They were practically desperate to be useful, the way adults feign enthusiasm, as if racing a time bomb to capture a child’s fickle attention span. But they were so interesting that I hardly noticed the difference.
One time, before I joined the nightly conversation, I heard a man from South Africa chatting on a nearby frequency. Africa was the only continent I hadn’t made contact with, which left a gaping blank box on one of my many checklists. So, I waited until the man’s conversation was finished and then tried to chime in. He didn’t hear me, though: My radio was too weak.
I tried a few more times, but eventually gave up and joined the Dirty Old Men. When I told them about the South African, Norm asked me what frequency he was on. I told him, and he said, ‘Okay, meet me there.’
I scanned over and found the South African still chatting away. And then, at a pause in the conversation, Norm broke in, his juiced-up radio easily reaching the Dark Continent’s ears. ‘Excuse me, there’s a young boy in Florida that was hoping to speak to you, but his radio isn’t very strong,’ he said. ‘If everyone could be quiet for a moment, he’d really appreciate it.’
‘Oh, that’s fine,’ the South African said.
‘Go ahead Jason,’ Norm said.
When my conversation with South Africa was over, I scanned back to the Dirty Old Men to thank Norm. He was there, chatting about something else, and I was somewhat disappointed he didn’t stick around to hear my conversation. It was a momentous occasion for me, the kind of thing my parents would have videotaped. But then again, I wasn’t his kid. He didn’t need to see me succeed. He was just helping out.
And so it continued for months, until there were no challenges left. The game never changed, the checklists were all checked, and I was getting lonely.
But one evening, the Dirty Old Men passed along a piece of advice that lasted longer than my interest in ham radio: They told me how to pick up cell-phone conversations on the handheld ham radio I had just bought. Now here was a real perk, something the kids at school would love—and love it they did. I brought the radio to class regularly, and we’d gather around and snicker as the unsuspecting rattled off directions and shopping lists and juicy bits of gossip.
One day I was at home scanning for cell phones, and found two high-school students talking about a stolen math test. One gave the other his fax number, and I quickly jotted it down. My father and I, caught in the moment, rushed out to Kinko’s and sent a fax that said, ‘DEAR MR. CHEATER, I KNOW YOU HAVE THE TEST. YOU SHOULD COME CLEAN. I’LL BE WATCHING YOU.’ We signed it ‘Kaiser Soze,’ and drove home, shaking and laughing like madmen, repeating the story to each other with wild bravado, enthused at how we invaded someone’s life with such spontaneity, such extremity, devoid of any meaning.
When I told my friends about the fax, they laughed and asked for details. They said they wished they were there. And like that, ham radio was hip. It was cool. Dirty old men and dirty young men—there was room for us all.