The Whistler Frequency

The campfire snapped and crackled, sending cascades of sparks into the cool night sky. "How about you tell me a campfire story, Uncle Bill?"

"Hmm. I do have a strange story I could tell."

"Did it happen to a friend of a friend of yours?"

"No. It's a true story because it happened to me!" So, I began to spin my singular story in the flickering fire light.

I had been given my first smart-phone a few weeks ago, so I was engrossed in the world of peer-to-peer texting. I could text anyone on the network, and they could text me, just by using a cell phone number. I even made new friends through the medium. One appeared to be such a newbie I took pity and helped him out. Somehow, I lost contact with him.

My mother sent me to spend the summer with my Uncle Ray, an old bachelor whose house was at the south end of Long Lake, north of Terrace Bay, Ontario. Being the oldest, he had inherited the estate, which had housed the family in earlier times when timber had been their business. The location was very remote, but in beautiful country, with excellent canoeing and fishing. Uncle had a great wooden boat house and a cable operated tram-car to bring groceries or luggage to the top of the steep hill. Much to my horror, at Uncle Ray's rambling old Victorian home, there was no cell coverage at all.

When he became aware of my disappointment, I attempted to satisfy his curiosity by explaining my device was a smart-phone, which meant it could easily send text messages to other people on the network. His eyes brightened. "Oh, so it's a radio transceiver sending coded digital signals from a computer! Correct? Come upstairs with me! I have something to show you." We climbed the usual stairs, but uncle unlocked a door on the second floor to a steep narrow staircase. As we climbed, we passed through the attic and into a small room perched at the very top of the house. Windows all around gave me a grand view of the countryside from the hilltop the house was perched upon.

Uncle waved his hands dramatically before a drab little box beside an old computer. "This is my own radio transceiver attached to a computer!" he declared with pride. "It's called software-defined radio. Let me start it up for you." The little box had only a few status lights, and the computer booted up into a version of Ubuntu.

"What kind of computer is this?" I asked.

My uncle noticed my tone. "It's not what you think. The hardware is a bit old, but that's all I needed." He opened an app and I was treated to a moving graphic. Against a dark background, traces of white squiggles and dashes gradually descended the screen. "That's called a waterfall display," uncle explained. "It is a way of representing radio communications signals that I am receiving on this little box," he patted the box carefully. "A broad slice of radio frequency is sampled by the computer and displayed, allowing me to access the little part of it I want to hear. See those dashed lines in the waterfall? Those are Morse code conversations. Morse is a digital code, you know? We can pick off which ones we want to monitor."

"A long wire antenna runs from this box, outside, and all the way to the top of the drive-shed across the yard." It was about 100 metres. "Your grandfather used a long wire antenna like that from this very room when he worked his amateur radio. No computer, just a big old tube transceiver powered by a battery. This is what he used to signal with!" Uncle pointed to a brass lever with a black knob on the end. "You grasp the knob and pound out Morse code. I can't demonstrate. I never learned it. I just type."

"How does radio work, Uncle Ray?"

"Basically, it's like light. A radio photon gets absorbed by an electron in the long wire and the resulting electrical vibrations are what the circuitry detects. It's part of quantum electro dynamics." He stopped at my questioning stare. "Later you can find it in my library."

Uncle let me listen to some of the Morse signals. I wished I knew what they meant. Then he moved the waterfall down to the low frequency end and framed some wavering squiggles. We heard a strange slowly descending whistling tone. "That's a whistler," Uncle explained. Electrons from lightning storms get trapped in the earth's magnetic field. They spiral back and forth between the magnetic poles. Their curving motion causes them to kick-off radio photons, which we are receiving. I don't know why the pitch changes as it does."

The bizarre noise fascinated me. "At school, we learned that all our radio and television broadcasts are still traveling out into space and if we could pass them, going faster than light, we could see all our shows again," I offered.

"Well, some of those radio photons will be falling onto a black-hole and are frozen in time at the event horizon," Uncle countered. "That means all our shows are databased around black holes." He grinned with me. "I can see that you're a bit like your grandfather. Let me tell you a true story about him." So, I sat with Uncle Ray while he related a curious tale.

The postman had just delivered a small package and was turning back for the hard trudge through the snow in our lane to his truck idling in the road, as I closed the back door. I examined the labeling. It was marked 'fragile, vacuum tube enclosed'. Mother, who was in the kitchen, called "Ray, your father has been fiddling with that radio of his all day! Tell him supper is on the table."

I climbed the stairs to the library, where I found him blotting the ink from a small cardboard card. "What have you got there, Ray?" he asked.

"The postman brought it," I explained. "And mother says to come to supper."

In a moment, father was placing the new tube carefully on the table. "My new triode!" he exclaimed happily.

"Did you break your radio, father?" I asked.

He looked at me curiously, "As a matter of fact, I think I am on the verge of a great discovery!" He put the dry card into the open book on the table and replaced it on its shelf. "Our brilliant Mr. Tesla is of the opinion that charged particles from lightning storms become trapped in the earth's magnetic field, where they begin acting like tiny radio transceivers, but they all operate at once, making a terrible noise. Thanks to the wonderful code of Mr. Morse, my radio can operate in such a narrow frequency space I can cut through the noise and receive individual transmissions." He dropped his voice. "I think I have found in the magnetic field these particles transmit shifted in time. Over the last few days, I believe I have been communicating with someone in the future. There is an identification number I have received which I hope will be able to provide the proof," he beamed at my expression. "Don't worry! You will be the first to know! I just have to get him to tell me what it is. Now, time for supper!"

"But grandpa never did re-establish contact, so there was no proof." Uncle Ray smiled at me, "It's a wild story but a family favourite." We sat watching the whistlers for some time.

The next day, I decided to learn more about the mysterious Morse code transceiver. Uncle Ray let me into the dim library room while he ran some errands. I turned on a small reading light on the table. Most of the books were grandpa's, on floor to ceiling oaken shelves, which uncle claimed had not been touched for decades.

I found an encyclopedia of science and technology, which provided a block diagram of a Morse code transceiver. It was the simplest radio design and used the smallest bandwidth, resulting in low noise. For my technical skills, however, it was still too difficult to build. Somewhat disappointed, I looked around at other books. One called 'The Art and Skill of Radio Telegraphy' caught my eye. Reading the introduction, I found it was written by one of those life-long experts from the past. He claimed anyone could learn Morse code and made a good case for the best way to proceed. It was while I was reading about the speed to use for recognizing Morse letters that something completely wild happened.

I paused, and across the campfire, my nephew's face showed he was there in the dim dusty library with me. "The shelf I had taken the book from was crowded with great volumes. Uncle was not a good house keeper and cobwebs had accumulated. My book had a thick layer of dust on top. The pages were brittle with time."

A chill that had nothing to do with the night air ran down my back as I recalled the scene to memory. "As I very carefully turned a page, a small cardboard card was revealed. It had been pressed into the book so long an imprint had been left in the neighbouring pages. I picked up the card studying it in the light. It had yellowed terribly, but something appeared to be written in black ink with an unfamiliar scratchy script. I finally realized it must have been done with an old-fashioned metal-nib pen, the kind dipped in an ink pot. Despite the scratches and blobs, I could make out a sequence of ten numbers. I thought to myself, 'This must be the identification number that grandpa recorded! Had he lost it in this book?' Perhaps the stale air had slowed my brain, but as that very thought passed my mind, I froze as I suddenly recognized it."

I paused, as my voice choked slightly. "Hey! What was it Uncle Bill? What's wrong?" my nephew's fire lit face stared with wide eyes. With a visible effort, I forced myself toward the inevitable conclusion.

"That number. That so familiar number, that as a result I have maintained to this very day, hoping for a reply, was my own cell phone number from my peer-to-peer texting," I mumbled in scarcely audible tones. "But I never managed to contact grandpa again."