My Grandfather’s Straight Key

My grandfather , James Edward Talbot, flew seaplanes in the navy during World War II. He joined in 1941 and flew out of Mustin Field. He could fly any of the planes until jets came along, especially the Catalina PBY and S.M.J. Beechcraft. Towards the end of his career he flew celebrities such as Bob Hope, Charlie McCarthy, and Kay Kyser. He also flew an admiral. We never found out which one. He served for nine years, and earned the rank of lieutenant. He passed away in 2005.

He told us a few stories over the years. One time he landed as another plane took off. He crashed and lost a wing. Another time they had to land at a base in North Carolina during a blackout. The men at the base lined up their cars and turned on their headlights so he could see. And one of his favorite stories: while taking off from a pacific island, he could not get the plane to clear the trees. The men had loaded so many watermelons into the back of the plane that it could not take off and they had to hurry to open the bomb bay doors and heave them all out the back.

He salvaged the clock from his PBY, which my Mom restored. I also remember a wing standing in the bathroom to which he mounted an ashtray. He smoked all his adult life. I have no doubt that his plane also had a radio, and that he knew how to use it.

I’ve always loved radios, and Radio Shack made a wonderful kid’s walkie talkie. It included a buzzer to send Morse Code, and it had a helpful chart of the dots and dashes. However, I couldn’t see the chart. My mother worked with my grandfather, and created a chart on heavy poster board, which my Mom made tactile with Elmer’s Glue. I loved that chart. I would read it every night to help me go to sleep. I would look forward to practicing it whenever I would go stay over night at my grandparents’ house.

Around this time my parents took me to the Franklin Institute, a science museum in Philadelphia which had a ham radio room. I touched the “big knob” as I thought of it, the VFO, and I tried sending Morse code with an iambic key. I knew right then that I wanted to become a ham. I started studying for my license, and got it a few years later, at age twelve. I got out of the hobby when I went off to college, and got back into it in 2019.

Ham radio has provided a wonderful outlet during the pandemic. I can always find some fun new thing to do. As 2020 rolled on I had a curious thought. I wondered if I could find out what kind of key my grandfather used. I figured that the Straight Key Century Club would know. I posted a message, and Chris, NW6V responded with a riveting story about his father which I would encourage you to read. You can find it if you scroll down to April 2019 on his page. The story ended with

His key was a Navy Flameproof.

I searched on eBay, and found a key up for auction. I placed a bid, waited, and to my delight I won! I asked the seller if he had any information on the key’s history. He said that he purchased another piece from the same place, and that it came from the U.S.S. Pyro, an ammunition ship which launched in 1958. The Flameproof key uses enclosed contacts, making it suitable for use in explosive environments. The key has the part number of CMI-26003A, indicating its manufacturer: the Moulded Insulation CMI Company of Philadelphia.

I got the key in a few days. The metal felt grainy, and I could feel its age. The arm had the famous navy knob, which looks like a small plastic disk, good for gripping while rocking and rolling. The key had two screws to adjust the distance and tension of the arm. It came mounted to a piece of wood. At first this seemed rustic, but I quickly would realize that I needed a better base. The wire terminated in two connectors which looked like hooks, certainly not the 3.5 mm headphone plug which my Elecraft KX3 expected. I would have to deal with that as well.

I tried tapping out some code for fun. The key had a crisp feel. Instinctively I began adjusting the key, and got a chill down my spine. I had just felt it adjusted to the position preferred by the previous operator. I reverted it and spent a few minutes sending as he would. He liked a lot more distance, probably from slapping it around on a moving boat. Finally I decided to adjust it for my lighter touch on terra firma.

Next I had to figure out how to hook it up to my radio. The KX3 has standard headphone plugs, but the key still had its original cable with two terminals. I posted again to SKCC, and Dean, KG7WGX made me a perfect replacement cable. It had the hook-like plugs on one end, and a standard 3.5 mm headphone plug on the other. In theory I could just swap it out.

In normal times before the pandemic I could bring the whole mess to my local radio club’s next meeting, and someone could do it. However, we do not live in normal times. I showed it to a friend, and she discovered solder on the existing cable. She didn’t feel comfortable proceeding, and I had no idea what to do. For a while the key and cable sat in my desk drawer. A year passed, and when I realized this I decided to just use electrical tape to join the cables. I taped each side of each cable together, then wrapped tape around the two sets of terminals, banding them together. So far it has worked perfectly.

Finally I could send CW on my radio. I began practicing, but soon realized another problem. The piece of wood made it impossible to send comfortably. Now I understood why all my keys have narrow bases. The side of the hand needs to clear the base as you push down. I posted another message to SKCC, and someone helpfully advised me to search on eBay. And of course, a ham makes custom metal bases specifically for the Flameproof. Luckily I didn’t need to bid on this one, I just bought it and had it in a few days. I used my pocketknife to unscrew the old piece of wood, and screwed in the new base. It felt perfect.

Some people do not like the smaller navy knob. I found that rotating the wrist to a 45 degree angle helped. This makes the thumb and index finger sit on top, and the middle finger rest to the side. I also have to credit NW6V with this tip. Telegraphers used to get what they called glass arm, what we would now call carpal tunnel syndrome. This happened because they would move the key with the wrist, instead of with the whole arm. After some practice I could send comfortably.

I wanted to take my newly restored key for a spin. I began tuning around the SKCC portion of 40 meters, around 7.055 MHz, and to my annoyance I found an RTTY contest in full swing. Radio teletype sounds like two fast tones, and the stations tend to run high amounts of power, and usually don’t listen to see if anyone uses the frequency.

I tuned up to what we call the novice portion of 40 meters, around 7.114 MHz. When I started out as a novice I made plenty of contacts here. As soon as I began scanning, I heard KY4ID calling CQ. I gave him an RST of 589, and he gave me a 579. In other words, my little QRP signal running 5 Watts using an indoor magnetic loop only had 1 S-unit less. Not bad at all! He gave his location as Hedgefield, SC, and his name as Mike. He ran 100 Watts into a doublet, the kind of antenna I had when growing up. We concluded the QSO, and I knew that I had a good luck key. I immediately made a new friend the first time I used it.

Since then I have made a number of QSos with it. Originally I planned to use it for special purposes. I already have a beautiful N3ZN HKII. However, I can’t stop using it. It feels nice and snappy. It reminds me of my grandfather. And I restored it myself, with some help from my fellow hams. The key has come full circle. A company in Philadelphia manufactured it, the U.S.S. Pyro carried it around the world, then years later I bought it from a seller from Maryland, and it has returned to Philadelphia. I imagine it feels happy to have a peaceful new life in the amateur service.