First, the beginning of the story:
Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif. — It has been a little more than a decade since the last of the nation’s commercial Morse code radio stations officially went off the air, as new technology sank a system that had been a lingua franca of maritime communication since before the Titanic.
But like transmissions that continue to travel through the cosmos long after their original senders are gone, there are some things that refuse to die. And on Tuesday, several outposts of Morse code blazed to life again, if only for a night, with the help of a group of enthusiasts bent on preserving what they call “the music of Morse,” one key tap at a time.
The occasion was an annual radio reboot known as the Night of Nights, held every year on the anniversary of the last Morse code broadcast from a coastal California station in 1999, which included a traditional sign-off (“We wish you fair winds and following seas”) and more than a few teary-eyed former radio operators.
The story took me back 60 years, to when I (with my best friend Albert) learned Morse code from a ham radio group in Reading PA, eventually getting a (novice) ham license (WN1 something something something — it’s been a long time). Other interests eventually overwhelmed this one (though along the way my dad and I together built a transmitter, from scratch), and I thought I’d forgotten the Morse I’d learned, but lots of it came back to me in a rush: E I S H (one dit, two, etc.) and T M O (one dash, two, etc.) and my name, which I got right off:
A . _
R . _ .
N _ .
O _ _ _
L . _ . .
D _ . .
Z _ _ . .
W . _ _
I . .
C _ . _ .
K _ . _
Y _ . _ _
(nice patterns in ARN, in LD, and in CKY). My index finger moved in rhythm as I thought about the letters.
Actually, I didn’t think about the letter-gestures separately; I thought about my actions in bursts or wholes, the way you do when you speak or write or play the piano. The skills have become routinized, packaged (through practice) into large complexes of action that are below the level of consciousness.
As with any skilled action, people can differ in their skills and in the styles of their performance. Operators are said to have “good fists” when their code is easy to understand, “bad fists” when it’s not, and experienced operators can recognize each other by their fists.
At this point, I can still do my name in Morse as a whole routine, but pretty much everything else is gone, like so many other skills I haven’t used in years and so much other knowledge I haven’t tapped in years.