'I thought it was a dying art': Why this Hamilton veteran wants to revive ham radio

John David was surprised to learn a five-minute phone call from the Golan Heights to his parents in Hamilton, Ont., cost a $20 in 1978 — a pricey expense for a Canadian Forces soldier with a monthly income of just over $300. So he sought a cheaper option.

Amateur radio was used to connect Canadian soldiers abroad with families at home

John David with the same model radio he used 42 years ago in the Golan Heights. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

In 1978, John David was surprised to discover — upon calling his parents in Hamilton, Ont. from the Golan Heights — that a five-minute conversation cost $20, a hefty chunk of change for a soldier making roughly $300 a month.

At the time, then-23-year-old David was a Canadian Forces soldier deployed for six months as a peacekeeper with the United Nations Disengagement Observation Force, tasked with supervising a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

To keep in touch with his family back home in Canada, David sought a less expensive alternative to the telephone, which had suddenly become an unsustainable luxury of instant communication.

But in the era pre-dating the internet, cell phones and satellite phones, alternatives were few and far between — apart from Morse code.

Even the professionals are amateurs

One day, during off duty hours while the majority of his colleagues were downing pints at the pub, David discovered the "ham shack," and forged what became a life-long hobby.

In the shack, David discovered a group of specially-trained soldiers, known as the Canadian Forces Affiliate Radio Systems (CFARS), who operated amateur radios.

Also known as ham radios — a term initially used to mock operators — this form of communication uses radio-sets to allow communication within a city, across the world and even into space. 

We can pretty much talk anywhere in the world with the right equipment.- John David, former Canadian Forces soldier and U.N. Peacekeeper

Communication takes place on the radio frequency (RF) spectrum and is regulated by national governments around the world. Amateur radio operators are required to pass a government test in order to legally operate the system and communicate with other users.

For many, amateur radio is a hobby — but when conventional forms of communication fail during an emergency or a natural disaster, ham radio operators are called to help.

CFARS was established in 1978 and enlisted amateur radio volunteers and their equipment, in order to assist the CF with communication efforts in remote areas. The unit has since worked alongside the Canadian Coast Guard, the RCMP and the Ministry of Public Safety.

The group's Golan Heights division brought David under their wing during his deployment, and they taught him how to create a "phone patch," a way of using a radio to mimic a telephone and call anywhere in the world. It cost a fraction of the price.

It was "pretty hard to learn" at first, David said. But he was eventually granted a provisional license to operate his own radio and establish contact with users back home in Canada.

John David's personal ham radio, U.N. cap he wore in the Golan Heights and two certificates from the organization. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Ham radios use a special set of frequencies — not the regular AM or FM signals on a regular radio — to "turn electrical power into actual radio communications," David said during a meeting of the Burlington Amateur Radio Club in early December.

"Once you've got [the radio] all tuned," he said, "it emits power through an antenna line and that power turns into a radio frequency, which bounces across the upper atmosphere." That bouncing frequency is called "skip."

"We can pretty much talk anywhere in the world with the right equipment."

After he made his first successful collect call — which isn't required with the medium, but David still recommends it — to his parents back home in Hamilton, he began compiling a Rolodex of contacts for loved ones of soldiers in his unit and nearby Canadian amateur radio operators.

John David in 1978, then 23-years-old and just back from his six month mission in the Golan Heights. (Submitted)

With his then-newly acquired phone-patch skill set, a stack of contact cards and the help of obliging operators in Canada, David put his colleagues in contact with their loved ones. And it cost next to nothing.

The only catch was only one person could talk at a time. David operated a foot pedal during the phone calls that he would depress to activate a microphone for the soldier on his end. When they finished talking, David had instructed them to say, "over."

It was a priceless and memorable experience for the soldiers, he said. And it kept them in touch with family members and spouses they otherwise would have rarely heard from.

'I thought it was a dying art'

After his six-month tour of Israel came to an end and David returned home to Canada, he lost his provisional license and had to reapply. In order to pass the test, he said, he was required to be proficient in morse code. 

"I just couldn't receive and send it fast enough, and that was one of the regulations."

So he put a hold on obtaining his license and continued with his Canadian Forces career for the next 20 years.

The certificate issued to John David for his work creating phone patches to connect Canadian soldiers in the Golan Heights to family members back home. (Submitted)

But David held the memory of his Golan Heights days close. He felt a constant nagging in the back of his head pushing him to try again for his operating license.

The eventual introduction of cell phones and the internet didn't eradicate David's passion for amateur radio, although he worried ham radio was becoming a "dying art."

"For a few years I thought, you don't hear a lot about amateur radio."

But all hope was not lost. Salvation came for David in the form of the Burlington Amateur Radio Club (BARC), a group of 20 to 30 hobbyists among the estimated 40,000 operators across Canada.

Just as 23-year-old David had discovered the "ham shack" in the Golan Heights 42 years ago, he again stumbled upon the BARC in 2019 and soon after joined their ranks with one concrete goal.

He was determined to obtain his operating license.

WATCH: Rod Clifton, president of the Burlington Amateur Radio Club, demonstrates how his ham radio works:

The club offers an eight-week course, president Rod Clifton said, to prepare for the government amateur radio operating exam.

David signed up and learned, to his delight, that morse code proficiency was no longer required.

He passed the exam at the end of November and is now legally allowed use his ham radio to speak with anyone, anywhere — just as he did when creating phone patches in 1978.

The first thing David says he wants to do is make contact with someone in the Golan Heights area on his personal radio.

"I'll say, I was there 42 years ago with a radio and I'd like to visit again."

Revival of the ham

The club's members are getting older. They recognize younger generations are more drawn to cell phones and computers.

However, David and Clifton are optimistic about reigniting an interest in amateur radio, especially among young people.

You meet all sorts of interesting people, and you never know who's going to show up.- Rod Clifton, president of the Burlington Amateur Radio Club

"It is a tool for the younger generation to get involved in a hobby that could actually get them employed in electronics or electricity down the road," David said.

Amateur radio operators are required to learn and practice electrical theory, he said, often dealing with "diodes, triodes, capacitors, resistors and antenna equipment," among other things. 

David says younger generations could get a kick out of learning more about the tangible process that goes into sending a message across the world, instead of having their phone do it passively for them.

Plus, it allows users to make friends around the world, much like interaction on the internet. 

Clifton said that one can "meet the most interesting people" with an amateur radio and the proper operating license. Contact can even be established with overhead passing satellites in space, including the International Space Station.

Rod Clifton, president of the Burlington Amateur Radio Club, at home with his personal radio setup — where he can communicate with other users across the globe. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

It all starts with sending out a "CQ" message over the airwaves, which translates to "seek you" in everyday English — as in seeking a conversation with another radio operator.

"I was called by a guy who lived in Overland, Kan. and he said that he knew Hamilton and Burlington quite well," Clifton said. "He played a french horn in the Hamilton Philharmonic [Orchestra] for years."

Ham radio, David said, is "unique compared to anything else as far as communication is concerned."

But at the end of the day, even if the hobby won't be around forever, David treasures the BARC and its members. And he's grateful for their help in finally obtaining his permanent operating license 42 years after his first CQ.


Justin Mowat


Justin Mowat is a reporter with CBC Hamilton and also spends time in Toronto at News Network. Reach him at: justin.mowat@cbc.ca


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