Thursday, December 13, 2012


I'm a carpenter. Been one for over thirty years now. And I've been wearing that ol' toolbelt in the picture above for over twenty of them. Sure, there's been breaks in the action. I've done the management thing on and off, owned a few businesses and the like but even all that has still revolved around construction - and carpentry.

Seems like that's what I was meant to do. Damn the luck. Why wasn't I meant to be a brain surgeon or Wall Street banker? Definitely would have made more money. And I could'a kept my wife in the style she'd like to grow accustomed to. Oh well, it is what it is.

Carpenters belong to a rather exclusive club. It didn't used to be. There was a time when the membership was vast, and growing bigger every year. But not so much anymore. I like to think of it as the Fraternal Order of the Toolbelt.

It's not really a secret society or anything. Hell, we wear our affiliation around our waists. You can generally tell which chapter we belong to by the tools we carry in our belts. There's carpenters, of course, but there's also electricians, linemen, tinners, roofers and on and on.

Anybody can get a belt. Just run down to the local hardware store. But, just because you can put one on, don't ever make a mistake and think you're part of the Brotherhood. No, membership just ain't that easy. It requires sweat, blood and skill. And time...oh so much time. We can pick out the wanna-be's in a heartbeat. It's in the way they carry themselves and the way they use their tools. And in their shiny new belts.

Now, everybody has to get a new belt ever so often. But for some reason, a life member of the Brotherhood can just wear it differently than the wanna-be. Maybe it's the old, well worn tools that fill it. Maybe it's the way the tools are placed, and the tools that are chosen. Maybe it's just the stiffness in the walk, the way you can tell a brother's been at it a while and his dues are all paid up and current. There's a sense of time, experience and authority that you can't get watching HGTV. Sorry, the DIY guy may be good, he may be very good, but he'll never get in the Brotherhood. We don't have honorary positions.

The next time a brother comes to your office to fix something, you drive by a new house under construction, with brothers sweating and bleeding in the hot summer sun, or walk pass a brother on a ladder up the side of a telephone pole, just give us a tip of the hat. We might not have college degrees, though you may be surprised at the number of us that do, and we might be a little rough around the edges, heavy drinkers and prone to foul language. But the world can't run without us.

And honestly, most of you can't run with us, either. We'll wear you down by ten o'clock break.

We're an ancient order, one that's growing much more slowly than it has in the past but one that will never die away. We're the builders, the ones that keep this world moving on.

We're the Brotherhood of the Belt.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I've got one more level of licensing to get through in my amateur radio hobby - the Extra. Now, you don't get a whole lot out of it as far as additional frequencies or privileges. There're a few perqs for the DX crowd, the guys and gals that are always pushing the limits. And the contesters gain a bit, too. And maybe someday I'll find these advantages useful.

But for now I just enjoy learning all the skills needed to be a competent ham. Since most of those skills involve the electrical arts math is a HUGE part of the game. So as I started the study with my brand new book it became really obvious that I better get a calculator. And not just a simple one, either.

I remembered that this little gem was sitting up in one of our kitchen drawers. It was my son's, probably when he was in grade school or something. You see, he was, and is, a geek. He works for Microsoft up in Seattle doing...well, I know he does something, and I'm sure I wouldn't completely understand it even if he deigned to described it to me.

So, I got it out and replaced all the old batteries. So far - so good. Then I saw a button labeled "on" and, whether through bravery, brashness or just plain ignorance, I'll probably never really know the reason, I pushed it. Why not give it a try? No guts - no glory. Right? The beast stirred, opening it's yellow tinged eye and flashing a baleful stare in my direction.  There was something on the screen, something that looked familiar, numbers letters and symbols, but they were arranged in a way that made no sense to me at all.

Fearing that I may have gone too far, that I could be messing with forces I hadn't prepared myself to face, I immediately moved to shut it down, to put the genie back in it's bottle. My finger flew to the "off" button, clearly labeled and promising sweet redemption from my folly.


I know that I'm not the sharpest pencil in the box and I've now had that simple truth thrown in my face yet again. But, I am smart enough to know that the answer to damn near any question can be found on the internet. So off I went. A quick search for the manual, ten minutes of downloading and I had the answer in my hand, or at least on my hard drive. All 247 pages of it!!!

So know, before I can start studying to learn the answers to all 702 questions that are in the pool for the Extra examine I'm going to have to study 247 pages of instructions to figure out how to use the freakin' calculator!

I should have paid more attention in school.

By the way, I did get the thing turned off last night.

I took out the batteries.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


One thing we always have too many of around here is eggs. I got ten out of the hen house last night! So I think I'm going to start selling them to help cover the cost of feed. It's more than doubled in the last year. In the mean time, I need to start finding different ways to use them up.

And what better place to look for a solution than in my favorite cookbook of all time, Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking"?

My wife suggested making a quiche. Now, I've never made quiche before but what the hell. Cooking is fun and I'm pretty good at it. Using recipes from this cookbook is always an adventure. I know I'll learn something, some technique that I can use in all sorts of other recipes. Turns out that this time I learned how to make a great pastry shell.

My first challenge, or stumbling block, was the need for a French pastry ring. You see, the quiche is cooked in a shell that is free standing, not sitting in a pie pan like most of us would do it. So I had to make the dough and form it into a bottomless ring that could be removed after the shell was pre-baked. We have spring form pans but they were too tall. The book said I needed something about 1 1/2 inches tall. Rooting around in the cabinets led me to the old reliable throw away cake pans. You know, the aluminum foil dealies you buy at the grocery store. They were the right size but the bottoms were not removable.

No problem. Went out to the shop, grabbed a utility knife out of my tool belt and made myself a "French pastry ring" - Missouri style!

It worked just fine. I'm going to get a real one though, or at least a real something that'll do the job. I don't want to have to make one every time I do this.

So I followed the recipe. The only change I made was substituting lard for shortening. We render our own lard and never use shortening for anything. It worked just fine. My guess is that it probably tasted better with the lard. And the crust was really flaky, something else I'd attribute to the piggy fat.

And this is how the pastry shell looked after it was pre-baked.

Pretty cool, aye? It turned out better than I thought it would. I've been messing around with dough quite a bit lately so I think I've gotten a pretty good feel for it. That definitely helped.

I made the custard as the recipe described it. I got out some of the bacon I cured last winter and simmered it in water for five minutes. This seems to be a fairly standard thing in her recipes. It takes the salt out. And you know what? When everything is said and done there's always plenty of saltiness. I've learned that, unlike most other cookbooks I use, I don't want to tamper with her basic recipes.

I fried the bacon until it was crisp, drained it and put it in the bottom of the shell. Then I put in some Provel cheese (that's a cheese peculiar to St. Louis that's used on pizza) and poured the custard on top to within about a a 1/4" of the top of the shell.

I popped it in the oven on a buttered cookie sheet and cooked it for about a half hour or so.

And here it is.

I don't think I've ever had quiche like this before. Because it's filled with a cream and egg custard it was exceptionally smooth and thick in the middle. There wasn't any lumps of eggs or anything. Just creamy , cheesy goodness with bits of bacon dispersed through it. And the crust. The crust was buttery and flaky, like the kind of thing I've had at good French bakeries. It was crispy and tender. Perfect.

I'll post a video below from Julia Child's old PBS cooking show describing the process and recipe. It varies just slightly from the book so I'd recommend buying the book if you're going to make this. Besides, if you like to cook this book will teach you how to do it right.

Bon Appetite! 

Watch Quiche Lorraine on PBS. See more from The French Chef.

Friday, December 7, 2012


I'm cheap. Not by nature but necessity. Unfortunately, my taste in hobbies tends to run to the expensive. Boats, fishing...and ham radio. Consequently, I'm always looking for ways to get the job done with the least amount of money spent. I build the things I can when I need them.

My buddy gave me a foot control trolling motor that he wasn't using anymore. Of course, it wasn't something that I could just bolt on. Never seems to work that way around here. So I ran over to the local farm supply and bought a sheet of aluminum and a couple pieces of aluminum channel. Then I fabricated a box with them and a piece of treated 4x4 that was laying in the junk pile behind the chicken coop. I ran some wiring down to a battery that I built into the front of the boat and suddenly I had a trolling motor for a grand total cost of about $50. If I didn't have the basic skills to do this myself I couldn't have afforded it.

We burn our trash around here, at least the trash we can't recycle. Mostly it's paper and some small bits and pieces of the various wrappers that go around everything we buy. We've been using a trash barrel for the last couple of years and like all trash barrels it finally burned through. So we needed to get another.

I was going to just buy another barrel when it occurred to me that I could probably build something that would be safer, more efficient and would also last for years. So I went over to Haslag, the local steel yard and bought some material. I worked up an idea in my head on the drive over and had them cut the stuff to the sizes I needed. When I got home my buddy Rick came over and we built a trash burner designed like a woodstove.

Works like a champ. Thankfully, I've taught myself to weld. The welder was a substantial investment, around $550, but it's paid its way over the years.

This mindset of mine, build it myself to save money, has come in real handy with the ham radio hobby. In fact, it seems the entire hobby is built around the DIY ethic. Even the radios come with detailed schematics and the more than an expectation, a design demand....that they be opened up and worked on by the consumer. What else do you buy today that wants you to get inside and mess around. Hell, you can't even take the tag off a pillow!

The natural place to tinker and save some money in the ham world is with antennas. These buggers can get expensive if you buy them already built. But, with a little investment in some tools, you can build them yourself. It's not simple, yet it is. There's plenty of math and electrical theory to learn but that's part of the fun. The resource pool is deep so getting the info isn't difficult. A great place to start is the ARRL and their Handbook and Antenna book. Both are essential


Then just leap into action! Expect failure. That's part of the fun, too. But with every failure comes learning and experience.

This is my first homebrewed antenna, a 2 meter J-Pole. It's built out of 1/2" copper pipe, the same stuff we use for plumbing, and some connectors. There's a bit of math involved. The wavelength has to be converted to inches so that the length of the various pieces can be determined. You can find this information at websites like Ham Universe.

I built this antenna a few weeks ago and it worked pretty well, at least on the upper part of the 2 meter band. But the SWR (standing wave ratio) was unacceptably high from around 145.50 on down. I knew from my research into the topic that this probably meant that the 1/4 wave section of the antenna was a bit short. That's the short piece sticking up on the right side.

The question was, how to lengthen it?

Using the knowledge I've gained since I built this I came up with a plan. And here it is:

I took a piece of 12 gauge Romex and stripped the ground out of it. A quick trip to the hardware store and I returned home with a simple hose clamp. I clamped the wire to the pipe, leaving about an inch and a half sticking up. I hooked up the antenna analyzer and saw an immediate improvement, with the SWR falling all across the band. Figuring I could get it a little better a I trimmed about a 1/4" off the wire and it dropped some more. Another 1/4" trim and I had it.

I've gotten plenty of signal strength reports since then telling me just how well this antenna is working. I'm more than satisfied with its performance.

And I might have $10 in it. If I'd bought an antenna instead of building it I could have spent more than $50 for one that wouldn't work any better.

So being cheap, for whatever the reason, and having basic mechanical skills can make for a way more enjoyable hobby, no matter what it is. Learn to use tools. Learn how things work. And learn to do it yourself.

It used to be that everybody did their own repairs. Not so much anymore. Don't be one of those people that always needs someone else to save the day. Take up your hammer and become a DIY superhero.

It may not be as cool as leaping tall buildings in a single bound but it sure is rewarding. And it can save you a bunch of money, too. Which will make your significant other happy. And that's the greatest super power of all.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


That's my granddaughter Taylor in the picture above. And yes, she's tending bar. I figure it's never to early to learn a trade. Never know when she's going to have to get out and earn a living.

And this is my wife Kathy. She's on the other side of the bar, actively engaged in the work training process. There's nothing she won't do for that sacrifice she won't make. I love that woman!

Now, this is Taylor's favorite playground. She's absolutely obsessed with shootin' pool. What the hell..if tending bar doesn't work out she can always hustle a few games. And that's my wife Kathy in the picture, sinking the eight ball for the win. 

I'm surrounded by bad, bad women.

This is Taylor's Christmas present. A nice little 48" two piece cue with it's own carry case. She shoots pool at the Eagles every other Friday night. She's gonna look pretty awesome when she walks in with this!

Some kids play football, some play soccer. In our family we specialize in the more sophisticated sports, the ones that generally require a smoky room and the smell of old men and beer.

Somebody has to keep the traditions alive.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


To follow up on the previous post:

These videos cover the basics of getting your station set up for digital broadcasting using the FLDIGI software and the Narrow Band Emergency Message system. NBEMS is widely used in ARES. These videos cover pretty much what you need to know.

Now, all you have to do is get involved in your local ARES group and start using them.

The software that you need to install FLDIGI can be found HERE.

The software for CHECKSR, which is covered in the last video, can be found HERE.

Now I've gotta get back to learning more about this stuff. I'm a newbie at it, too. And I expect to have a bunch of problems to work out as I go along. But that's one of the reasons you should join both your local ARES group and your local radio club. There're a lot of people that have been doing this a long time and most of them like nothing better than to pass along what they know. Why not accept their services?

I nearly forgot to tell you the best part - the software's FREE!!!


One of the really cool things about amateur radio is all the different ways it can be used. Sure, it's fun to just throw out your sign and see who's hanging around out in the aether. I meet all kinds of people that way. We sit around and talk about whatever comes to mind. Before you know it, others have joined in and the conversation just follows a natural course. In the ham world this is called "ragchewing".

But, there's a more serious side to amateur radio that's even more interesting. Emergency communications. You've probably heard on the news how ham operators become the primary source of communications during natural disasters when the normal communication systems go down. As the saying goes, "When all else fails - ham radio".

This doesn't just happen by accident. There's a well established training system in place, organized by the ARRL. It's called ARES. Other countries have their own groups but here in the good ol' U.S. of A. ARES is the place. I belong to our local group, Franklin County ARES.

ARES works with local, state and federal emergency management agencies to establish alternate communication systems for those times when the traditional systems are overwhelmed. Surprisingly, in this age of technology, cell phones, sat phones and everything else, our communications systems are one of the first things to go down. Just look at Hurricane Sandy. At least a third of the cell towers were knocked down. The hard wired system was heavily impacted. The parts of it that were working were overwhelmed. The police and fire systems are fairly limited in the frequencies available to them and the distance they can communicate. And they rely on repeaters on some of those same towers that had been destroyed. So, in just a matter of seconds the infrastructure that supports all of our communication can be, if not destroyed, seriously compromised.

Ham radio, because it relies only on individual dispersed stations, not massive technology centered in vulnerable locations, can ride these sorts of disasters out. If one station goes down there are many others to take its place. It's the ultimate in redundancy. And the skills, equipment and frequencies, not to mention the modes available to hams far outdistances that available to nearly everyone else.

So we train. We learn to follow established guidelines for proper communications. We learn how to set up and support various agencies such as the Red Cross and their shelters. We practice with different radios, different power systems, different modes of communications. We work closely with our local EMA's (Emergency Management Agency) to develop coordinated systems of communications to support them in times of emergency. We're trained in damage assessment because we may be asked to go out and put together reports to radio back to the EMA so they can determine where the limited resources they have at their disposal can do the most good. Many of us belong to other groups such as CERT so we're cross trained in first aid and light search and rescue. We train with local fire and police so that we can support them if needed. We learn basic traffic handling skills, the same sorts of skills the telegraph operators used 100 tears ago.

All this is done on a volunteer basis. And the funny thing is, most Americans are completely unaware of it.

Last night was one of those training nights. The great thing was that I didn't have to leave the house to do it. We were working on digital communications. You heard that right - digital. We combine our radios and our computers to send digital files and text messages over our analog systems. It's sort of like a simple internet.

Why would we do this? First, it's a whole lot easier to send a whole lot of information quickly this way. Say a shelter needed a list of supplies transmitted to a supply depot. Transmitting it verbally would be time consuming and error prone. But, send a Word doc or spreadsheet and it's accurate and fast. The same is true of any other sort of list or report. During an emergency there's plenty of need for lots of information to be disseminated quickly and efficiently.

The other reason for digital communications is security. Our transmissions, by law, have to be available for anyone to monitor. During an emergency various agencies will need to transmit information that they would rather not have freely disseminated among the media or other groups. The chances are that most of these groups will not have digital receive capabilities so our transmissions will just sound like a fax machine to them.

So I set up the software last night and made my first digital transmission. And it worked. I need to make a few adjustments and I could buy some additional hardware that would make the process easier but what I have worked and that's all that matters. It's really cool moving digital files around among a whole group of different computers scattered all around Franklin County without relying on the internet and the massive global infrastructure it needs to function. Just a laptop, a 2 meter radio and a home brewed antenna.

Self sufficiency in the digital age. I'm lovin' it!

Anyway, my next post will be about the software that supports this and setting up the radio and computer. Yep, it's geeky. But if you believe, as I do, that this whole world and all the complex systems it requires to function are teetering on a razor thin edge,  then you understand that learning these sorts of communications skills seems as natural as learning how to raise chickens and cure meat. And becoming part of the group that will support them in your local community is a common sense prep for the coming collapse.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Looks like I know what my winter project is going to be. I'm going to study for and hopefully pass my Extra exam. I went over to the ARRL website today and ordered the book.

There are three classes of licenses available for amateur radio operators, if you don't count some of the older classes that have been grandfathered in. These are Technician, General and Extra. Right now I have a General license which allows me to broadcast on a really large segment of the amateur frequency allocation. The Extra won't give me that much more in the way of privileges but I want to earn it anyway.

The Extra question pool contains 702 possible questions from which 50 are taken and included in the test. Without getting too boring, the way it works is that the questions are grouped together by topic. The test requires a certain number of questions from each group to be on the test. Those specific questions change so the test is never the same.

The book above comes with software that allows the student to take and retake sample tests that are randomly generated, grouped and weighted just like the real test. It also allows the student to see the answers and find out where he went wrong. This system worked incredibly well for me on my Tech and General tests. I had a perfect score on the Tech and only missed one on the General. I'm not much of a student so it works.

The Extra exam is way more complicated since it focuses much more heavily on electronic theory and circuit design, areas where I'm weak. And that's the reason I'm looking forward to studying this material. If I can earn the ticket I'll have a much more solid understanding of the hobby and electronics in general.

And then maybe I can fix my radio problems.

If you're interested in what the questions look like you can find them here. Brace yourself for sudden boredom.

Monday, December 3, 2012


A few months back, right around Labor Day, this was my room for about a week or so. A pulmonary embolism just about killed me. I've got no one to blame but myself. I like food, beer and sitting around. When I was young it didn't matter because...well, I was young! And I was working full time as a laborer and then a carpenter so the weight stayed off.

But now I'm old and only working on the hit and miss. I know how to stay in shape. I used to work out every day to stay ahead of my dissolute ways. But I let that slip by the wayside a while back.

Not anymore.

The weights are back. And so is the pain. I got everything set back up and got down to it a few weeks back. It does feel great to get back into the game but I still hate doing it. But what the hell. If I want to keep doing this on the weekends...

I'm going to have to resign myself to doing this every day...

Welcome to the other part of the basement, right to the left of the radio shack. We've had this stuff for years and like I said, we used to use it all the time. I guess I'm just going to have to make it a permanent part of the routine from now on.

I'm old and if I want to stay healthy, while still eating and drinking all the good stuff I love, but only on the weekends, this is the new reality.


Well, I've built another little antenna for the transmit side of the antenna analyzer and it works. Last night I dialed up 14.000 mhz, more or less. The analyzer is pretty damn sensitive so it bounces around a few cycles either way. Anyhow, I could hear the carrier on the HF rig and was able to tune to it. So I knew I was real close to dead on at 14.000.

I switched over to the frequency counter and pressed the PTT. The meter read 27.998, double the receive frequency!

I switched down to the 40 meter band and got the same sort of result, a transmit frequency twice the receive frequency. So now what?

I know the meter is accurate because doing the same thing on my 2 meter rig produces transmit and receive readings that are consistent with a radio that is working properly. So I have to assume the readings on the HF radio are accurate.

I'm figuring that there's some damage in the radio that will need to be repaired. The weird thing is that when I transmit the other hams I talk to can read me. They say I'm just off frequency a little. If I was broadcasting on an entirely different band I wouldn't think they could hear me at all!

The plot thickens. I'm going to have to find somebody at my radio club that knows these radios inside out. There's a bunch of guys at the club that have been doing this a long time. And I'm never afraid to ask for help.

The learning continues.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


I was perusing the Missouri Conservation Dept. website the other day, reading up on the alternative season for deer. Normally I associate this season with all the crazy stuff like atlatlas (so crazy I can't even pronounce it) and leaping from trees with a knife between your teeth. I know, sounds insane but believe me, there's boys back in the hills that are probably doing it.

Anyway, turns out that the season now includes normal stuff, too, like muzzleloaders, longbows and HANDGUNS.

Now we're talking!

I'll be the first to admit I'm not obsessed with deer hunting like so many of my friends are. In fact, I've never killed one because I don't enjoy spending that much time in a tree stand or a blind, listening to the voices in my head. I'm a bird hunter. I like talking and walking, or sitting in a duck blind drinking a few beers and having some laughs with my buddies. Sitting by myself doesn't get it done.

So here's the question - which gun? The revolver is a .357 and the pistol a .45. Both'll get the job done. I'm maybe a slightly better shot with the .45 though at the distance I'd take a shot in the woods here it really won't matter.

Any opinions?