Friday, April 4, 2008

The Saddest Words I Know

“I don’t know how.”

My granddaughter was at the kitchen table, working with her new microscope, trying to see some brine shrimp eggs, but the viewer was dark.

“You have to adjust the mirror so the light reflects through the slide,” I told her.

“But Grandpop, I don’t know how!”

“Did you look at the instructions? Did you try to move the mirror around and figure it out?”

“No. Fix it for me.”

Ah, a teaching moment.

It would have been much easier to simply adjust the microscope so she could see the tiny eggs and hurry back to my easy chair and copy of CQ Magazine, but I decided to give her a quick tour of her new toy, lecture a little bit about optics and reflections, show her the section in the instruction sheet that addressed the subject, and sit her down to read it. Then I made sure she tried what she read until she got the results she sought.

Of course, she took one quick look at the infant shrimp, shrugged her shoulders, and ran off to something more flashy and glittery. But that’s not the point.

The saddest words I can imagine are when someone says, “I don’t know how,” and then stands there, waiting for someone to do it for them.

Look, I know that not all of us are naturally and incessantly curious. Sometimes we have no desire to know how something is done or how it works. We just want it done or working. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I have no interest in learning how to replace the brakes on my car. I’m perfectly willing to pay somebody to do that. While the mechanic changes them out, I get to do something I want to do or that makes me money to pay for the work. Meanwhile, he does his job, feeds his family, and the chances that the vehicle will actually stop when I want it to are ratcheted up considerably. New kitchen cabinets? I am convinced I could study and experiment and buy a fortune’s worth of tools and waste a bunch of expensive materials and learn how to build some perfectly good kitchen cabinets. But I choose to hire someone who already knows how, who already owns the tools, and who does a good job the first time. Though I do not acquire a desirable skill, I also know it is a bit of knowledge I would likely never use again. The XYL is happier, too, which is always a big, big plus.

However, when someone chooses a hobby or pastime or to get serious about any other endeavor, and he or she then makes the decision to not invest a little time and effort into learning more about it, it boggles my mind. Don’t get me wrong. Because we become amateur radio operators does not mean we have to gain the equivalent knowledge of an electrical engineer. I do not intend to open up my transceiver and take it apart just so I can put it back together again and learn how it works. What I am saying is that we should all have more desire to learn about things in which we have interest. Why would we take the plunge and insist on asking somebody else to do it for us?

The same thing goes for many other things in life. My granddaughter, the light of my life, begged for that microscope for months. Why would she ask grandpop to do the most basic of adjustments for her? Would you take up golf and then ask the club pro to hit the difficult shots for you? I think some would if they could!

How many people refuse to learn anything about income taxes (too complicated, no time, bad at math), then either fill out the short form because it’s easier or trust somebody else to do it for them, leaving money on the table? How many people blindly invest (do not understand financial stuff, don’t have time, don’t want to learn) their 401K contributions in only their company’s stock and lose scads of money in the process? How many people have never taken the time to learn the basics of how an automobile works and then are shafted by unscrupulous mechanics?

I cannot change the brakes on my car. I don’t know how. Again, I could buy a book, read the instructions, buy some tools, purchase a good jack, and change them, and I would then know how. I choose not to. But I know enough about the job to know if I am getting fleeced! And if I ever decide I want to do it, you can bet I’ll learn how to do it correctly. I am no expert on Wall Street, but I know enough to keep my meager retirement nest egg properly invested and diversified so I don’t get heartburn when the subprime mess dominates the headlines. I can read. I can comprehend. I have limited time, just like you, but I think it is important enough that I learn all I can about the subject.

I do not stand there, swaying back forth in the breeze, waiting for somebody else to do it for me. Or complain because nobody volunteers.

Maybe it is the lack of self-responsibility that seems to be so prevalent today. My generation was so conscious of protecting our kids from anything bad, making sure their precious self-esteem survived intact, and that they wanted for nothing that we raised a whole crop of, “I don’t know how. Do it for me!” Or gave them the attitude of, “I don’t want to learn a skill so I can make a living for my family. I can’t learn. It is too much trouble. I’m too dumb. Pay me anyway, though. It is not my fault I won’t learn.”

I see examples of it in the forums on the popular ham radio sites. Bless ‘em, they do have the gumption to ask, and that is a good thing. But the post usually runs something like, “I just passed my General and spent $10,000 on a rig and amp. What kind of antenna should I buy?”

There are enough curmudgeons out there that the first replies will not be all that friendly. No, they will be downright nasty. Eventually, though, someone with a true Elmer’s heart will ask some questions and provide the newbie with some valid info, pointing him in the right direction to learn more, politely inviting him to search the site’s archives for the hundreds of other answers to the same question, urging him to invest some time and effort in some of the myriad sources for antenna knowledge. With a little exertion, that newcomer will pick a good antenna and learn something about antennas in general in the process. He will likely never be an RF engineer, but he will enjoy the hobby more.

Sometimes the original poster comes back with a thank-you, and a report that he or she has invested in an antenna book, visited the W4RNL web site along with several others, and is busy soldering feed line to some wire. But too often, the follow-up post is, “What a bunch of rude SOBs! I just wanted you to tell me which antenna to buy. I don’t know how to make one!”


As never before in the history of mankind, we are blessed with access to knowledge. I can read about any subject I can imagine…free, no waiting except for the page to refresh…and some subjects I could never have thought of, even if I had wanted to. I just found a site that links to a dozen different free, online Spanish courses. Want to learn about the sex life of the tsetse fly? It’s there. Need a manual for a piece of gear that was discontinued in 1972? Odds are you can download the PDF. Do a Google for “antennas” and stand back!

If you want to learn about something, you can. You just have to invest the time and energy.

Let me make it clear. It is okay to ask for help. That is one of the best and most lasting traditions of our hobby. Many of us take great pride in being able to help newcomers get a good start in amateur radio, just as our Elmers patiently helped us, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Marconi and I were in the same pile-ups.

At the same time, the Elmer often learns while teaching, too. It is absolutely true that the best way to learn is to teach.

It is a cliché, but like most clichés, it is one because it is so true. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach that man to fish and you have fed him for the rest of his life. Of course, the caveat is that the guy has to want to learn to fish.

I have infinite patience with him if he does.

I have zero tolerance if he wants me to catch, clean, cook and spoon feed him that nice sea bass.

The saddest words I know: “I don’t know how. Do it for me.”

But maybe the most hopeful: “I don’t know how. Would you help me learn?”

Don N4KC


Anonymous said...

Hi Don!

Great post!

Being a DXer of some 47-plus years, I have a LOT of people to thank.

But more than any other DXer who was ever ON THIS EARTH, I owe my first and best impression of my future ham radio DXing niche to the legendary Leon Faber, W9EH of Sandwich, Illinois. He was the president of the James Knights Crystal Company, a boon to nearly every novice operator.

He is with the angels now, but as a nervous novice in 1960, I was invited by the uncle of a friend of mine to visit this really BIG ham station.

So we drove out to the country and there it was ...

a verdant green golf course-sized homesite sprouting a handful of wooden ROTATING monopoles laden with the latest in stacked Telrex monoband firepower.

Inside, Leon, er ... Mr Faber greeted us warmly and invited us into the "shack," all Collins, with the KWM-2 as its centerpiece. He regaled us with tales of just talking to the middle east or some island who knows where. And then I timidly presented him with my

I watched his eyes.


He and I instantly knew that we were born for this pursuit we both shared. Then and now.

I had that fire in my belly to learn everything about DXing, propagation, low-angle DX antennas and all the rest.

I didn't ask him to "do DX" for me. His own enthusiasm for DX and for a young novice ham from a small Illinois town was all the spark I needed to learn all I could.

My life motto, in DXing, and outside, has been and is:

"BE what you wish to see!"

I dreamed and now I am ...

Leon, dear friend, RIP.

Wayne C. Long, K9YNF
IOTA Honor Roll
Nearly DXCC Honor Roll

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said, Wayne. You should consider writing wonderful stories and making them available for all of us on the Internet! ;-))

My Elmer was Walt, W4OXU, who drove to work each day at NASA in Huntsville all the way from little Springville, Alabama--a commute that took him about 5 hours a day. But he did it because he loved his mountaintop, rural QTH. Yet he found time to start classes at our high school, host field day, allow many of us to sleep over at his place whenever we wanted (all so we could help him operate his ART-13 and Hammarlund Super-Pro station), drive us to Atlanta to take our FCC exams, and still maintain a land surveying sideline company and build his house from the ground up with only the help of his wife, son and daughters (most of whom were also hams). Makes me tired thinking about it, but he always had time for a dumb question from us. The only time I saw him become irritated with one of us was when we DIDN'T ask a question or appeared uninterested. He was an impetus for this post, as you can tell.

We eventually had about 30 active hams in our little town of less than a thousand folks. Some are still active. So is his daughter, K4BRZ, who now lives in that house on the mountain that Walt was still building the day he died.


Don N4KC