Radio Bugs

by Rick Ferranti, WA6NCX

© 2001

The title doesn't refer to software bugs in the computerized innards of the latest PacRim transceiver, though indeed a radio like this (or at least its packing box) makes an appearance here. No, the kind of bugs I'm talking about either fly or crawl, and their unwanted association with my radio hobby borders on something you'd read in a Stephen King novel.

The Radio of the Flies

I enjoy collecting and restoring old radios, particularly communications gear stretching back to the 1930's. About ten years ago a well-known collector in Maine advertised an 1947-vintage communications receiver for sale at a very attractive price. It was a bit distressed, he told me, but the dial looked nice and the tuning mechanism operated smoothly, and that's all I usually need (along with a low price) to add some old dog to my collection. So one gray late November day, I tooled on up to his house, a two-hour drive north of the Boston area, where I was living at the time. The seller, besides being an old-time ham and a bit of a curmudgeon, was a real self-sufficient Yankee, with an impressive expertly engineered but entirely homebrewed hydro power plant installed over a creek by his house.

When it came time to dig out the radio, it lay covered by a tarp in the back porch of the old farm house. "Damn flies," he said as he pulled off the cover, "they get in here from the horse farm next door. Cold weather kills 'em off." I watched with not a little annoyance as he brushed dozens of fly carcasses off the set. The receiver really was distressed, but was all there, the dial looked nice, and it would fix up pretty well with some work. I carried it out to the car, dumped it in the trunk, paid my host and thanked him for the tour of his hydro plant and radio collection, and headed home in the cold gray November skies.

It was late in the afternoon when I got the set home and put it in the basement workshop. A couple of hours later I went downstairs to take some laundry from the dryer and noticed a couple of flies zinging around the basement. That's funny, I thought, I wonder where they came from. After dinner, I went down again to poke around in my new radio acquisition. This time, there were at least a dozen flies buzzing everywhere. I began to get suspicious, walked over to the old receiver, and opened its cabinet lid. To my horror and amazement, the insides looked like the fly equivalent of a beehive; dozens and dozens of flies crawling in among the tubes and taking off from every corner. Those damn flies weren't dead, they had been hibernating in the cold! My nice warm basement had been enough to reawaken them, and the workshop was rapidly filling up with flying insects!

I grabbed a big plastic garbage bag and dumped the receiver in it. On the way out the basement door, I took along an insect bomb, one of those aerosol cans of insecticide that you set off in a room, go away for a few hours, and come back to an insect-free space (and your very own EPA Supersite). Radio in bag goes in garden shed, insect bomb gets set off in bag, bag gets sealed up, garden shed gets locked up, and Rick goes back into the basement to swat a couple dozen flies.

I lost interest in the old communications set for awhile. Before the winter snows buried the shed, I did uncover the radio and let it air out for a few more weeks before brushing out every stone-dead fly carcass I could find. But I never brought it back into the house. That Spring I sent the receiver away to a guy who wanted it so badly and gave me such a sob story that all I asked for was the postage. This ham, who turned out to be a big-time Collins radio collector and is anything but a poor struggling radio fan, tried to cheat me out of even the postage. Oh well, he got more than he asked for; he got my Radio of the Flies!

Antsy in Arlington

Our house in Arlington, Massachusetts, just a few miles from Boston, was a typical New England starter home, built in the so-called Cape Cod style. That's basically a box with four rooms below, and if the owner chooses to finish it, a couple of rooms upstairs. Because the upstairs "half-story" takes up what was supposed to be the attic, the upstairs rooms have sloping ceilings following the roof, and are narrower than the first floor because short vertical walls are built to meet the roof line before it extends all the way down to the upstairs floor. This leaves two long triangular cross-section crawl areas, extending along either side of the second floor, up under the eaves of the house.

The resourceful ham sees these crawl areas as ideal places to stash hardy items like antenna parts or the shipping cartons from new gear. I say hardy items because it gets mighty cold in that crawl space in the winter, with the uninsulated roof above and the soffit vents, open to the outside, below. And in the summertime with the sun beating down on the roof and no air circulation, it gets wicked hot, enough to fry anything so fragile as a radio. So it was that the shipping cartons from my SSB transceiver ended up in the crawl space. If I sell it later, I figured, the radio will bring a bit more money if it comes with its original boxes.

Years later a fancier transceiver came my way, and it was time to sell the old one. It was a fine autumn day when I screwed up enough courage to crawl down the stuffy, dusty area under the eaves and recover the radio's original shipping carton. I backed up out the door cut into the vertical wall and, happy to be back into the light and space of the ham shack, dropped the box onto the hardwood floor. Funny thing, I knew that the carton was actually a doubled box and had its original fitted Styrofoam inserts, but when it hit the floor it didn't make a characteristic muffled thump. Instead, it sounded like BB's were rolling around in there, a kind of shhhhh-shhhh noise that got momentarily louder, lasted several seconds, and then subsided. I kicked the box; shhhh-shhhh it answered.

Cautiously, I pushed the box to the middle of the room and started undoing the string that tied the carton flaps together. They sprang open, and there was a new experience of amazement and horror -- the box was full of ants, hundreds and hundreds of huge black ants! It was the sound of their thousands and thousands of feet drumming on the flat surfaces of the Styrofoam inserts that made the sound, and now with the box sitting open to the light they began swarming furiously in a tempest of movement. SsshhhHHHHHHH, I looked incredulously at the fully operational ant colony revealed before me, and couldn't close the box fast enough!

Down the box went, as fast as I could carry it, down the stairs and outside far from the house. The rest of the afternoon I took every other box out of that crawl-space, dozens of them, not even bothering to open any -- and laid them out on the curb for the next trash collection. None of the others made any noise; just that doubled transceiver box with the fitted Styrofoam inside. But there weren't going to be any more ant homes in my house, under the eaves or anywhere else.

It still amazes me that the ants could choose a cardboard box in which to build a colony, especially in an area subject to such extremes of hot and cold. Maybe the Styrofoam served as an insulator, buffering the temperature changes. When I recovered a bit and this box also went out in the trash (carried by gloved hands), I looked for an entry place perhaps chewed into its side -- these were the big black New England grease-eating ants, not the tiny California kind -- but there were no holes. They must have just crawled in through the thin slits in the box lids.

My old SSB transceiver got sold the following weekend. I got a good price for it, despite its lacking "the original box." I don't keep original boxes for anything anymore; I like to grow antenna farms, not radio ant farms!


12 January 2002