I don’t know why, but I can remember my dad tucking me up in bed one night when I was a little lad of about 6 years old and my asking him, “Dad, what sort of games did you play when you were my age.” I also recall his saying something like, “I’m sorry son, I can no longer remember,” and my not being able to wrap my brain around the concept that someone couldn’t remember stuff as important as games. Now I know where he was coming from.

I think one reason I don’t remember anything specific from those days of yore is that I didn’t do anything of note – just usual kid stuff. I do remember one thing about being 11 years old. During that glorious summer, I was usually to be found sitting with my chum Jeremy high in an awesome climbing tree at the bottom of our garden talking about things of great import, such as the chances of our being able to trick his younger sister Jane into falling into the camouflaged mantrap we’d just dug and filled with mud. The answer turned out to be “No” in the case of Jane. Unfortunately, my unsuspecting mother was (a) less lucky and (b) less than amused.

There are several reasons why, at that time, I wasn’t thinking about building a radio system that would allow me to talk with the astronauts on the international space station (ISS), not least that there was no ISS at that time. Since I first decided to grace this planet with my presence in 1957, humans hadn’t even landed on the moon by my eleventh summer in 1968. In fact, it wasn’t until 20 July 1969 that Commander Neil Armstrong famously said: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” I still tear up a little when I hear a recording of those words.

Zeke (age 1.5) investigating a knife switch (left) and Eric (age > 1.5) assembling the circuit (right) (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: KJ7NLL)

The reason I’m waffling on about all of this here is that I recently had a video call with an amazing 11-year-old lad called Zeke and his dad Eric. Under Eric’s guidance, Zeke is happily using professional-grade electronic design automation (EDA) tools to design radio frequency (RF) circuits to be used in conjunction with a giant helical antenna he’s constructing with the goal of communicating with the ISS.

My dad was a wonderful man and I loved him dearly, but it has to be admitted that he didn’t have a technical bone in his body. Zeke is fortunate that, in addition to being a great dad, Eric is a tech whiz who has stimulated Zeke’s imagination from the very beginning.

Zeke (age 8) with his first ham radio (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: KJ7NLL)

When Zeke was one and a half years old, for example, Eric took him down to their local Radio Shack where they purchased a small incandescent bulb, a battery holder, and one of the knife switches favored by Igor and Frankenstein (“It’s alive! It’s alive!”). When they returned home, Eric (under Zeke’s watchful eye) attached everything to a small piece of wood and connected the wires. Zeke subsequently carried that contraption with him everywhere chanting “switch, battery, light bulb… switch, battery, light bulb…” According to his parents, Zeke would also spend a lot of time sitting in a dark closet turning his light on and off.

Zeke’s urge to communicate with the ISS came when he was 8 years old. As a result, Zeke, Eric, and Zeke’s grandfather, Mark, attended a ham radio class together. It took Zeke three attempts to pass the exam (Eric and Mark passed first time) but — after a couple of months — all three had their Technician licenses (Zeke now has his General license). Shortly after Zeke got his own KJ7NLL call sign, his grandmother, “Bobbi,” presented him with his first ham radio.

Since that time, Zeke and Eric have been beavering away building things like a phased array antenna (for fun) and a helical antenna (with which to communicate with the ISS). During our call, Zeke demonstrated his Lego prototype (powered by a Silicon Labs Microcontroller) of the mechanism that will cause his helical antenna to track the ISS (you can see a video about this that Zeke recently posted to his KJ7NLL YouTube Channel).

I’m so enthused by all of this that I’m planning on writing a series of columns about it here on the Cool Beans Blog. Furthermore, this is such an interesting story that I’m going to talk about it more fulsomely on EEJournal.com (I’ll post a link in the comments below to the first column in the series as soon as it goes live). Meanwhile, as always, I welcome your erudite comments and I look forward to your insightful questions with dread anticip…

Postscript: People have already started posting comments, so I’ll add the link to my column on EEJournal here: O-M-Gosh, I’ve Been Zeked!