They say that amateur radio is an old man’s hobby. While not strictly true, we do have a large number of senior citizens engaged in the activity. We strive to bring in young people, and we’ve done pretty well with that. Perhaps it isn’t as fast as we’d like to see it happening, but great strides are being made all the time.
Still, when attending an event like I did Saturday morning, December 19, the sad evidence of the average age of the typical ham is brought home rather dramatically.
We officially said, “Goodbye” to one of our favorite ham radio operators. Don Witschger, KC5VLV, passed away peacefully on November 24, 2015, at age 90, after a valiant battle with multiple cancers. Don had been a bright spot on the ham radio scene since before I became licensed in 2005. We looked forward to seeing his smiling face at ham radio events, and hearing is cheery voice when he checked in on the various ham frequencies.
As usual, when we become part of the ham community, we often don’t know a fellow ham’s last name, or much about where he came from or who he was before becoming a ham. For some strange reason that I’ve never understood, most of our relationships with other hams are built strictly around the hobby. For example, I didn’t know until quite recently that Don Witschger had been part of the amazing D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, and that he was a Navy Seabee. I also didn’t know he was very involved with the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Lobo Wing at the Moriarty Airport, and that he enjoyed helping them restore vintage WWII aircraft.
We heard about Don’s passing on the amateur radio bands, as is frequently the case among hams. We learned that his best friend, also a ham, went to check on him that morning (Don had been a widower for a few years) and found he’d passed away in his easy chair. Not a bad way to go, I suppose, if any comfort can be found in that. Still, the first thought I had was remembering his recognizable voice as he’d checked in with me on the early morning SCAT Net just a couple of weeks before. I wouldn’t know until attending his memorial service on Saturday how much of an amazing man he had been.
I’d heard that the tiny town of Moriarty, New Mexico, just thirty-five miles east of Albuquerque, had it’s own small airport, but I’d never had occasion to visit it. That’s where we headed for Don’s memorial service early on Saturday morning. The town of Moriarty is laid out on the flat plains east of the Sandia mountain range we know so well in Albuquerque. The Moriarty airport is on the far eastern side of the town, and it is surprisingly active. The area is home to folks who love the sport of gliding. By the time we arrived at about 9:15 a.m., we saw one intrepid soul already up in the air, being pulled behind a small aircraft.
There are a large number of hangers laid out over the large area the airport occupies, and the CAF hanger was on the far eastern edge of the complex. We had very concise directions and easily found our destination. Inside the CAF hangar, we were greeted with the sight of an old World War II plane badly in need of restoration. It’s already underway, and we were to learn as the morning unfolded that our ham buddy Don had been instrumental in getting that old vintage plane transported from what had been its final resting place somewhere in Michigan to the CAF hangar in Moriarty for loving restoration.
My husband (also named Don) and I were the first guests to arrive, and the CAF members were welcoming and hospitable. We found dozens of white lawn chairs neatly laid out in the area of the hanger, south of the restoration project. In front of the chairs, tables were being set up to showcase an amazing array of interesting photos of Don during significant parts of his life. Also on hand were big speakers that would soon fill the room with the sounds of music from the 1940s World War II era. Behind the chairs they were arranging tables displaying an impressive array of food for the attendees.
As the other guests filtered in, we recognized many of our ham friends. Almost all of them could be said to definitely fit the category of senior citizens. Before long, the rest of the guests, along with Don Witschger’s family members, had all arrived and the service began.
Each of the family members took turns speaking about their father and grandfather, and we learned the details of this man’s rich, full life. We learned that in addition to flying and ham radio, he loved shooting, reloading, tinkering with various building projects, and many years spent RVing and traveling all around the country. We also learned that his final wish was to have his ashes spread over the airfield where we sat.
So, at the end of the wonderful tributes and sharing of happy stories, we heard the vintage plane’s engines roar to life out on the field and taxi out for his takeoff. We all filed out, stopped at the edge of the taxi strip, and watched the plane rise into the air, sharing air space with another plane towing a glider behind it. Our plane flew out a little distance to attain his appropiate altitude, then slowly circled back. As we watched, the pilot made his approach and started his final path for delivery of the precious cargo. When he was still several hundred yards to the west of us, he released the ashes, and we watched them slowly drift to earth. As the plane flew on east to make his eventual landing, a lone bugler played Taps. There weren’t many dry eyes after that.
On the drive back to Albuquerque, Don and I were pensive, as you might expect. It’s never easy saying “Goodbye” to an old friend. But we both agreed that Don Witschger’s farewell was a tender tribute, and a beautiful sendoff to a spirit so full of love and life.