Old code, tapped by fans, lingers in park

07/18/2013

Richard Dillman, co-founder of the Maritime Radio Historical Society, can tap out an impressive 25-plus words a minute in Morse code, his thumb and index finger almost imperceptibly flicking the red paddle of the semiautomatic telegraph key to the right for dots and to the left for dashes. 

About 30 people crowded around him at 5:01 p.m. last Friday as he began his left-handed broadcast from the officially defunct KPH receiving station at the Point Reyes National Seashore for the 14th annual Night of Nights. 

The gathering is a revival of Morse code that marks the anniversary of the last commercial Morse broadcast in the U.S. on July 12, 1999. 

Onlookers were silent as former professional Morse code operator Dave Wolfe stood beside Mr. Dillman and translated the frenzied blips into English: “Calling all stations from KPH, KFS, KSM…” A few filmed or photographed the scene with their smartphones. 

The National Park Service owns the KPH receiving station, located on a cypress-lined lane off of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, about midway between Abbotts Lagoon and Schooner Bay, the widest finger of Drakes Estero. 

The park service also oversees the corresponding transmitting station, located 20 miles south in Bolinas. 

If the 16 transmitters were not stored so far from the receiving station, listening to incoming messages, Mr. Dillman said, it “would be like trying to hear somebody whisper in a room full of shouting
people.”

Although the park keeps the lights on, the historical society mans the stations. Its dozen or so mostly retirees “generate, maintain and interpret” Morse code’s legacy in the country’s last coastal station, their activities ranging from repairing the aging transmitters to hosting weekly open houses at the scenic receiving station.

KPH officially closed in June 1997, when then-owner MCI Communications, also now defunct, called for the end of the more than 90-year-old station. 

Morse code had begun to decline in the early 1980s with the spread of radio telex, a sort of early email system in which text messages were automatically transmitted over shortwave radio. Morse code still soldiered on, with telegrapher ranks thinning, until the nation’s final commercial broadcast from station KFS in Half Moon Bay in 1999. 

By then, the federal government had mandated adoption of the new satellite-based Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.

Mr. Dillman helped form the historical society in 1999 almost expressly to preserve KPH. He had never worked at the station, but he was a telegrapher on a Greenpeace ship for a few weeks in the early 80’s. His passion for radio, he said, was genetic. 

Morse code, it seems, has a hallowed culture. Mr. Dillman calls hardcore radio heads like himself “true believers,” or sometimes the more self-effacing “radio squirrels.” 

And these men and a few women make pilgrimages to the Night of Nights. Amateur radio operators Tom and Karen Mitchell drove two days from Port Angles, Wash. for Friday’s event. Former KPH station manager Jack Martini came down from his home in Butte County, where he retired after closing the station he worked at for 25 years.

On Friday night, Mr. Martini hung on the crowd’s periphery. He spoke warmly when asked about his work and laughed when explaining a framed cartoon sent from a disgruntled KPH employee who had left decades ago. Mostly, he kept his hands in his pockets, pulling them out to show how manual, semi-automatic and automatic keys work differently.

MCI Communications kept Mr. Martini on to work alone for two years after the station closed. He inventoried the equipment, tidied up. He had the cypress trees lining the long driveway up to the receiving station pruned before he left. “It really made a glorious entrance to kind of an antebellum nothing,” he said. 

Mr. Martini hopes the station will continue to broadcast on occasion, or at least exist as a museum. Otherwise, “It will be gone forever, and there will be no record ever.”

For now, Mr. Dillman and the historical society crew carry that torch. They have hosted school tours on weekends, and Mr. Dillman writes a bimonthly newsletter that goes out to about 1,600 subscribers. 

“We have made efforts to identify the radio obsessed kids of today,” he said. “Because all of these projects like the historic ships, the WWII ships, are facing the same thing. All of the chief engineers, the people who really knew the ships, they’re getting old. It’s the same with us. We’re no spring chickens.”

In the meantime, Mr. Dillman wears his long-sleeved, khaki button-down monogrammed with “MRHS” and “Park Service Volunteer” each Saturday and puts out his little sandwich sign at the end of the lane. 

Kids who arrive with their faces buried in smartphones have delighted in this antique communication, he said. He will tell a young girl, “Okay, your name is Alicia. Here’s an ‘a’,” and he’ll show her the letter’s corresponding one dot and one dash.

These basic dots and dashes predate the ones and zeroes of today’s computers, and according to Mr. Martini, they are “the purest form of digital communication.” 

Mr. Dillman conceded that preserving Morse code might not have the strongest competitive case. Although interaction with a listener in Australia was almost instantaneous on Friday night, that communication could not carry pictures, for instance, or the quantity of data that a fiber optic Internet cable can.

“Guys will tell you, and they are right, that in an emergency Morse code will get through when nothing else will, with the minimum equipment,” Mr. Dillman said. “But it takes skill, and that skill is starting to fade away.”

For true believers, those dots and dashes are shorthand for nearly a century’s worth of heroism. “It’s not that it’s practical. It’s just fantastic,” Mr. Dillman said.