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Month: January 2021

False Signals

QSL postcard sent by Earle Olsen, April 1936

It’s been about a year since I last updated my blog. What a year, huh? I finished drafting the family memoir detailed on these pages, wrote case studies for tech companies, trained and coached product managers, and sheltered in place. No more research trips! But there is still much to find—or stumble upon—online.
For example, last week I was looking for a 1955 print by my father that a fellow alum of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was selling on eBay, when I came across this unfamiliar postcard with my father’s name on it. At first I thought it must be something related to his military service because I didn’t recognize the acronyms, but the date was clearly 1936, when my father would have been nine years old. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it had my father’s name on it so I bought it for $8.
My first stab at research clarified that it was actually a QSL card, which amateur radio enthusiasts (“hams”) sent to each other to confirm conversations. From the 1920s on ham operators mailed these postcards after every contact, often as a point of pride to verify a particularly long-distance connection. I scrolled through pages and pages of examples, many for sale on eBay and other hobbyist sites, and discovered such cards from all over the globe. Some were simple typed lists, but some were individually designed, with visual images relating to the location or personality of the sender.
This card, with the personal radio call number W9VXK, came from Oak Park, Illinois, near where my father grew up, though the address wasn’t his family home. But the name had his less-common spelling, with the e at the end of Earle. And I had a vague memory of my father saying he had a ham radio as a child, though no one else could confirm it. I also knew my father had been a radio technician in World War II. Perhaps he had a history of tinkering with radios, an early interest or expertise? His family was well off and would have encouraged such a hobby, perhaps. It seemed plausible, even though he was only nine when this was sent to another hobbyist in Baltimore.
QSL is an abbreviation based on the Q Code developed for international maritime and telegraph communications in the early twentieth century. These brief three-letter codes could convey a wealth of information across languages and distances: from QRA? (what ship or station are you?) to QRN? (Is the atmospheric interference to this signal strong?). Receivers could respond with formal Q codes or invent their own language of abbreviations, like the C.U.L. for “see you later” on the card shown above. I could picture my father as a somewhat lonely child, a stutterer who liked to draw, enjoying this private and remote kind of intimacy, a closeness that bridged distances. But how could I prove it? I could find other such cards from my father in old archives. I could examine old family photos from the 1930s and look for ham radio sets in the backgrounds. I could search published directories of amateur radio callers from the 1930s…. The W9 prefix was assigned to callers in the midwest and members could list their names, call numbers, and addresses in published directories for one dollar a year.
However, I soon ran into trouble in making this case. First, the card’s seller told me that radio operators were rarely that young. Then it turned out that those five digit radio call numbers (the QRAs) were assigned by individual licenses, which seemed unlikely for a child to own. Finally, I scrolled endlessly through the archived pages of the Fall 1937 Radio Amateur Call book Directory, from the W9A___s to the W9V___s, through name after name until I confirmed that W9VXF was indeed assigned to a different Earle Olsen, nested between Homer G. Kuiper and L.W. Preston. This radio-operator Earle had the exact same spelling as my father and lived near him in Chicago but at the unfamiliar address of 531 Belleforte Avenue, Oak Park. I had speculated that perhaps that had been the location of a school or radio club, but nope.
That Earle Olsen’s QSL card is still in the air, so to speak. It was mailed from Chicago to Baltimore in April 1936 and is now winging its way on invisible communication paths from Baltimore to Truro, Massachusetts. I don’t know where else it’s been for the last 80+ years, or what other conversations it has witnessed. As a researcher, I appreciate randomness, which means I must allow and encourage it in all directions, including failures. Null experiments or failed signals are indeed evidence too, like the negative space Joshua Rothman described in his wonderful New Yorker essay on unlived lives. Rothman opens by suggesting a life he could have led, had things gone even a little differently, and then broadens his piece to consider all the paths not taken, the people we didn’t become. He asks, “isn’t the negative space in a portrait part of that portrait? In the sense that our unled lives have been imagined by us, and are part of us, they are real.”
Could my father have experimented with a ham radio as a boy? Sure. Could he have stayed a radio technician after the war instead of going to art school? No way. But it’s an alternate reality that, in its gaps, lends some shadow and highlight to the man I knew.