A Life Long Influence...
by Ray Thompson

Charlie Lightfoot changed my life, although neither of us had that in mind when we first became friends—through the hobby of amateur radio…often called “ham” radio.

I grew up on a cantaloupe farm in Pecos, Texas. My grandparents, Madison and Julia Todd, were pioneers in the
Pecos cantaloupe business and founding members of the Bois-de-Arc Street Church of Christ. I first remember Charlie Lightfoot from church, although not well, as he was 15 years older than I. He had a slight build, a quiet demeanor, and combed his hair straight back—the way my dad did. He was a serious and faithful Christian that everyone loved and respected.

I was a fat kid, never much interested in the girls, but interested in everything else! We didn't have electricity on our farm for a few years, but my dad helped me build a crystal radio set. With it I could hear station KIUN-Pecos using my bedsprings as an antenna. I joined the Boy Scouts and an ad in the Scout magazine caught my eye: "How to Become an Amateur Radio Operator, $.25." I sent for the book, but not having a radio I didn't really understand very much of it. The next year, my parents bought me a short-wave radio for my birthday and I began listening to the short-wave bands, including the ham bands, but the hams used Morse code, which was greek to me...

During my sophomore year, I heard of a guy in town who had his own ham station! (I had listened to hams on my radio but had never met one.) I soon found out that this guy had a very high tech job, working on the toll test board for the long-distance phone company. Much to my delight he invited me to visit him at his job. As you may have guessed, that guy was Charlie Lightfoot!

I was in awe of what I saw and heard… Charlie was busy on the “board” but tried to explain things to me between spurts of communication with other technicians up and down the long-distance lines—not by voice, but by use of Morse code! Charlie used a high-speed key for sending the Morse characters, translating their replies in his head—never writing anything down. (Actually, this was not "radio Morse" as I had heard it on short wave, but "telegraph Morse," sounded on a mechanical clicker like I had heard at the railroad station.) The building was filled with rows and stacks of patch boards and mechanical relays and dialers of that era—long since replaced by the digital computers of today's phone systems.

This visit was the beginning of many years of mentoring, tutoring and friendship with Charlie. Of course I soon got to see his "ham shack" and learned his call sign—W5MVR. In ham parlance, Charlie became my "Elmer" (mentor) to the exciting world of amateur radio communications. With Charlie's guidance I learned that it required a license from the Federal Communications Commission to receive an amateur call sign and to operate an amateur station. Daunting, but it didn't cost anything and you could learn to build your own equipment. The examination for the license was in two parts: theory and Morse code. I ordered books to help me with the theory and Charlie would tutor me. He would also teach me the Morse code; you had to be able to send and receive 13 words per minute to pass. The nearest FCC office was in El Paso, but for the Class C license the regulations allowed Charlie to give me both of the exams; he let me know that I would have to pass both on my own—Charlie was not going to fudge for me!

I became completely wrapped up in this new hobby—sometimes neglecting my chores and school work. However, my parents approved of my enthusiasm. When I tried to explain ham radio to my grandparents, the comment from grandmother Todd was, "Well, Mack, I don't understand all of that, but Charlie Lightfoot is a wonderful Christian man and I'm glad he is helping you."

In my senior year in high school I passed the FCC exam and received my call sign: W5OUS. For my graduation present my parents bought me a Hallicrafters S-20R Radio Receiver, designed for ham radio operators. While studying for the exam, Charlie had helped me convert a military surplus transmitter to work on the ham bands. (I would use Morse code; a voice transmitter was still several years in the future.) The day my license came in the mail I couldn't wait to "get on the air" for my first contact. Of course I wanted it to be with Charlie, only a few miles away. I called him on the phone and we set up a "sked" (schedule) for me to call him at a certain time. Without Charlie at my side I was extremely nervous but sent out the call: W5MVR W5MVR W5MVR DE W5OUS K—but I didn't hear Charlie reply! I tried again—his signal was usually very strong… What was wrong? Embarrassed, I finally called Charlie on the phone—he said he was hearing me just fine! Suddenly it dawned on me, I was listening on the wrong frequency band! I switched my receiver from 40 meters to 80 meters and there was Charlie's "fist," (unique sending style) just as I had heard it during our many months of practicing the Morse code! I was now a real amateur radio operator! Sometime later, Charlie and I drove to the FCC Office in El Paso where I took and passed the exam to get a Class B License, so I could use voice communications.

Charlie and I had many more adventures in our hobby… I went off to school at Abilene Christian College that fall and set up my "rig" (ham station) in my dorm room—where I was heard on nearly every radio in the dorm! Charlie was my link back home and would relay messages to and from my parents and grandparents. I met another ham at ACC , “Doc” Callan (W5OBM), and he and I built the first campus radio station for the college,
Station KACC. In the summers that followed my dad helped me build a beam antenna and I advanced to making voice contacts, including some foreign countries, much to the delight of my mom who would take over the microphone and tell them about our cantaloupe farm!

Charlie and I made a little bit of ham radio history when we managed the first contact out of Pecos on the higher frequency 2-meter ham band—talking to another ham in Wink, Texas.

I finished ACC in 1951 with a degree in General Agriculture and a minor in Bible, but was immediately eligible for the draft. I decided to enlist in the USAF for four years. Of course, I hoped to get into radio communications of some kind, but so many kids were enlisting in the Air Force that summer that all the tech schools were full. Without knowing it, Charlie reached out to help me again… When I tried for a second time to get a communications assignment they discovered that I knew the Morse code! This opened a door into the field of communications intelligence. The job was
highly classified and it was many years before I could share it with Charlie, but again, his friendship and mentoring had guided my life…

Somewhere in here, Charlie found his girl—Jewel! I was proud to be asked to be Charlie's best man...

When my enlistment was up in 1955, I came home with the GI Bill in my pocket. My parents were still in the cantaloupe business but by now the field of electronics beaconed me… When I told my dad that I wanted to go back to Texas Tech and get a degree in Electrical Engineering he was not surprised. I met my wife, Avalyn Maddox at the Tech Bible Chair, finished my degree in 1959, and took a job with Collins Radio Company in the Dallas area. Why did I go to work for Collins? Well, Mr. Collins made the best ham equipment you could buy—if you could afford it! Yes, a slight, quiet, faithful Christian man had a lot to do with my 30-year career with Collins/Rockwell.

In the 80's the computer lured me away from ham radio and the Internet became my daily communication medium. I still hold call sign W5OUS but I've not been active on the ham bands for a longtime. However my Elmer, Charlie Lightfoot, never got the computer bug. So, in the new century, Charlie and I have corresponded my mail or talked by phone. I've relished remembering with him some of our ham radio adventures and hearing him tell of being interviewed about the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was a hard but grounding experience in Charlie’s life in the 1930's.

From the CCC camps of yesterday to the high-tech world of today, Charlie has lived a life of sacrifice, kindness to everyone, fulfillment in his profession, and service as a Christian father and brother in Christ. Charlie lived "by the book" and his faith has endured for almost a century. Charlie Lightfoot influenced my life for the better and I'm very thankful for that.

RMT/9/26/11 - Rev2