Personal Perspectives on the Bruce Kelley Memorial QSO Party

It’s that time of year again – time for the annual Bruce Kelley 1929 QSO Party. This unique event, sponsored by the Antique Wireless Association, is like an “activity period” for use of transmitters built around circuits published in or before the year 1929. Many say it is meant to be a fun event, not a contest.

I have a 1929 TNT transmitter I built in 2011 after long time friend Ron, N4GJV mentioned the Bruce Kelley party to me. I had always been fascinated by the unique appearance of 1920s transmitters. Learning of this annual operating event compelled me to build one. Every year at this time, I struggle trying to decide whether to participate or not. I took part in 2013 and 2015 under my own call sign, taking first place both times. In 2016 I was given the special honor of operating under club call sign W2ICE, which was Bruce Kelley’s call sign. I haven’t participated since then. The Bruce Kelley is one of those events I want to love, but in reality my relationship with it is more of a love-hate thing. To understand why, I have to acknowledge that I could be a poster child for adults on the autism spectrum. I am very seriously impacted in several ways, the effects of which are evident in every aspect of life.

They call it a party, but what it is depends on who you talk to. For some it is a very informal event, a time to fire up the really old rigs and make a few contacts for fun. For others it is a contest and they are out to win. Clearly I fall into the latter category. It’s like the old Pringles commercials – bet you can’t eat just one. Nope, I eat the whole darn can of ’em! I find it impossible to just have fun and not make it about competing. Competing is the fun. Well, that and the warm glow of a UX-210 filament filling the shack. I suppose by nature I am a very competitive person. This is stifled everywhere else in life, so it comes out in ham radio. Ham radio is that one special area in which I feel confident and comfortable, whereas everything else seems alien. This is autism clearly showing itself. It would also be fair to say that many on-air aspects of ham radio have not been inviting or have been downright uncomfortable because of my life challenges. Conversational QSOs and ragchewing are pretty much out. Contesting, being a facet of the hobby that is generally quite comfortable, has gotten into my blood and I always feel it pulling at me. Whatever you call it, results of the Bruce Kelley event are published, and a plaque is presented to the station making the most contacts. To me, that makes it pretty cut and dried – whatever the name, it’s a contest. I have tried to operate casually, but competitive instinct takes over, pushing good sense aside.

On the face of it, you’d think that wouldn’t be a problem. I am a contester and to me the Bruce Kelley event is a contest. So what’s the deal here? Well, for for one thing the exchange is very long: signal report, name, state, transmitter type and year, power level. That is much longer than most contest exchanges and gets into my discomfort zone. This is compounded by it being a low power event. I might be ousted from the ranks of “1929” builders and operators for admitting this, but I am not normally a QRP operator. I stress about whether I’m going to be copied when running low power. While sending the long Bruce Kelley exchange, I tense up and break out in a sweat. With low power and the long exchange, there is a very real possibility that it won’t be copied entirely and repeats will be needed; additionally there is always the risk of “losing” a QSO that can’t be competed because conditions changed, something I just have a hard time with. Overall, operating in this contest is difficult and exhausting to me. Yet once I start, the contester in me takes over and I am there for the duration. I would be much more comfortable if the exchange were short, say signal report and state. But that would ruin the event for the majority of participants. My perception is that many “29” operators are folks who enjoy a good ragchew. There is nothing wrong wit that. I admire them and wish it were that way for me. Furthermore, most who participate in this event want to know the other operator’s name and what transmitter they are using. To most, that is part of the fun. To me, it is torture. I too am very interested in knowing what the other guy is using for a rig and so on, but getting that information over the air while operating QRP is not a comfortable thing.

There are good reasons why this is a low power event. For one, it is far more difficult, dangerous and costly to build a high power transmitter conforming to 1929 design. If high power were allowed, low power stations would have no chance to be competitive, and many would be priced out of the game. Even if low power is stressful for me, I wouldn’t want that to change for this event. One of the things that make it special is that the playing field is maintained such that those on a modest budget can compete. I like that. There is another good reason for keeping this a low power event. The old rigs don’t sound like modern ones. They have chirp, clicks, buzz and so on. This increases the risk of interfering with other users of the bands. Low power helps mitigate that risk. Overall, while I am attracted to this unique operating event, I must acknowledge is wasn’t crafted with the likes of me in mind. Which is fine, of course.

Another factor which has made this event less enjoyable for me has been use of a straight key. Back when I participated, this was not not mandated by the event rules, but many participants feel using anything else is not in the spirit of the event. Now the rules clearly state hand keys or Vibroplex type keys should be used. Personally I love the smell of ozone as the high keying voltage and current sparks at the key contacts! Ah, “real” radio! Using a straight key is consistent with the spirit and reality of 1929. But I have some issues with my arm, compounded by surgery on it a few years ago. Even just pounding out one or two QSOs on the straight key makes my arm ache. After my last participation in the Bruce Kelley party, my arm hurt for weeks. I even consulted a doctor to see if I had done any lasting damage. I decided I would not be doing it that way again, and built a keyer which can handle the high keying voltage and current of these vintage rigs. When I mentioned this in one of the forums, there was something of a small storm of controversy regarding use of anything other than a straight key. This has been a discouraging factor to me since that time.

So, here we are at that time of year. The Bruce Kelley 1929 QSO Party kicks off in just over 48 hours. The TNT is set up and tested. It is connected to the new keyer. But I have yet to decide whether I will operate or move the TNT back into its usual home, under an acrylic cover in my living room. It does make an interesting display piece and I enjoy seeing it every day, but it would be nice to use it on the air a bit more. Edit: Just over 12 hours to go and the deciding factor is the rule on using hand keys. I’m out. The rig goes back to its point of display as an ornament.

Leave a Reply