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Recollections of Thomas A. Curtis, W8BMJ

A little pre-WLC background: I was in service (USCG) from August 1942 until Oct. 1945, and learned CW in the Coast Guard radio school at Atlantic City. I graduated in March of 1944, and went from there to my first assignment at NOG at the Soo. I'm also a musician, and when I got out of the service I went on the road with a trio in 1946. Starting in Jan. 1947 I attended Central Radio and TV School in Kansas City, MO for a year on the GI Bill and received my 1st phone license, 2nd telegraph and CAA flight radio operator certificate. I also got my ham ticket at this time and was assigned W8BMJ. TWA hired me in Feb. of 1948, and I spent about 2 months at the TWA school in Kansas City before starting as a Flight Radio Operator.

Tom Curtis in TWA Flight Radio Operator's uniform.

Tom Curtis in TWA uniform - 1949
Archivist Note: There is a photo of Tom
at the WLC
controls on the WLC main page.

After several years with TWA I was furloughed so I took a job at WLC early in 1953. I worked there until March 29 of 1954 when I returned to TWA. I stayed there until the Flight Radio Operator positions were abolished in June of 1957 when SSB took over from CW. After a short stint at air traffic control (not for me) I went to back to WLC and remained there from 1958 until Oct. 1, 1962 when I left to work at WSL Amagansett Radio on Long Island, NY and stayed until that station closed in 1984.

I'll never forget the day in 1953 when I walked into WLC and saw the big console and no markings on any of the many, many switches. They marked them with a red pencil when a new guy came in those days. While at WLC in '53-'54. I lived in Petersville in a rented house that was later taken over by the quarry and became a big hole!!!

Before I started to stand watches Station Manager, Bob Crittendon, gave me the Great Lakes Red Book and checked various fleets for me to memorize along with a list of navigational check points with Indian and French names and how the steamer captains. pronounce them !!! I really wondered what I had gotten into. It was different, but I found that we gave them real personal service. They just had to say "morning message" and we knew where it was supposed to be delivered by the ships name. They never gave a destination, thus the reason to memorize the fleets.

Another problem for a new operator were the telephone lines plus the teletype printers. The bells all sounded alike at first, but after a short time you could pick out each one by its tone. The Western Union printer was the old type where you pasted its strip output on the blanks. If a union sent messages to 60 or so ships someone came in on O.T. to paste them up for the records.

During the time I was there it was mostly phone with 20 or so CW messages per day. Sundays usually had a single operator and we would sometimes handle two calls at once - a little tricky but you had one in your phones and reached over to the next position and put that one on the speaker and usually it worked out OK. Gale warnings could keep you busy as you gave them on phone first and then on CW after the first silent period, and sometimes you had warnings for all the lakes.

When the Bradley sank in 1958 the lawyers descended on the town and it was not a pretty sight. I knew a few of the guys who were lost - not well - but had a few beers with some of them.

Winter Work:

I really enjoyed the time at WLC although the winter and the winter work was another story, but I survived it. The station closed from mid December until mid March so winter work (starting just after Jan. 1, as I recall) was different. The operators were on electricians gangs, not installing radios, but any kind of general wiring on steamers berthed for the winter. I still remember how cold that winter work was. They had some pot-bellied stoves and electric heaters on the steamers, and you were warm if you were within a foot of the stove. It was really hard working on deck. You were working with number 8 wire, and the slightest bump gave you a big welt that lasted a very long time. I well remember one winter being in the Chief Engineer's cabin and drilling through a double plate and breaking drill bits over and over. I saved a piece of the plate to remind me never to bitch about working conditions again on any other job. I think Harvey Peltz was with me on that one. One day the wind was blowing almost a gale and some people were up from the Detroit office. It was so bad that one of the bosses said, "The men can't work under these conditions" and sent everyone home.

More than half the guys went ice fishing - I wasn't among them. We would stop at a local bar, and I would down 3 or 4 straight shots and I really don't like them as I like mixed drinks. When I got home I'd get in a tub of hot water, and it was the only time I was warm the entire day!!!

While I was there I think that Frank Sager worked the winter at WLC doing anything that needed to be done as I don't remember seeing him on any of the electricians gangs, but I could be wrong.

After I left WLC they stayed open through the winter one year as a test program of some kind kept the harbors open and ice breakers used where needed. I'm not sure what year that was, and I think it was only the one year as the normal procedure was to close in mid Dec.

Some Amusing Incidents:

Bob Crittendon for all his stern appearance had a great sense of humor and he would tell jokes on himself also - one being the on-off switch on his radio at home. It needed a new control and Bob kept putting it off and for a very long time his wife had to plug the radio into the wall plug to turn it on and pull the plug to turn it off.

Another time he was very upset with the phone company about the teletype and called to talk to the manager, and they kept putting him off saying they would call him back etc. Finally Bob said, "No, don't call me back, I'll wait until I'm this mad again and call you back"

At the entrance to the station we had a weed growing - one of the cactus family with prickly leaves. Bob kept spraying it products that were supposed to kill it and nothing worked. One day he was out there attacking it with a blow torch, and the phone rang. It was one of the company big wigs from Detroit calling. I went outside to let Bob know, and he said, "Tell them I'll be right with them," and I said, "Should I tell them what you're doing?" and he said, "Noooo."

Sometimes on our day off we had a not-too-often habit of playing tricks on one of the on-duty operators. For Example: We quite often got a call from a steamship company asking to speak to the Captain on a steamer - so we would pick one that we knew sank sometime before and call the station, and if this operator answered, we would ask to speak to the steamer's Captain. I still remember the steamer - the Henry Steinbrenner - the same company that later owns the NY Yankees baseball team. It kinda backfired this one time as Bob (Station Manager) was sitting in as it was real busy. After the operator called "Steamer Henry Steinbrenner - Rogers City calling," another ship dialed in and Bob took the call, and the ship said, "He's been on the bottom for 5 years, Rogers City." Bob answered "I know, Capain, thank you." The next day there was a note up reading "The horseplay with - operator's name - will cease immediately"

Of course, Bob used to tell about the tricks he played - like one operator who would fall asleep with his feet propped up on the dynamotor and they would turn it on to make him jump.

Bob related that one of the early lakes stations was on Mackinac Island (Archivist Note: WLD) and he didn't get too much traffic so he had a very long cord on his headphones so he could work in his garden. When he got a call he would run like hell, and more often than not another station would steal the ship. So he complained to the FCC, and Bob said that the FCC sent a notice out about it.

Editors Note: While at WSL Tom received a very nice complement on his "fist." The author of the complement was the head of Press Wireless. WSL sent "press" every evening to the ships.

Tom Curtis, W8BMJ
August 2008

Update: Tom became a Silent Key on January 27, 2018.

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