In August, stalled in traffic while 12,000 runners in the Falmouth Road Race passed by, I met John Clough, one of many volunteers from the Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth Amateur Radio Associations helping out that day. John’s interest in radios began at a young age, and helped support a career that has taken him from the Southwest to the frozen North.
A few weeks later I visited John Clough at home at the house in Vineyard Haven where he grew up, and which he now shares with his wife, Jean Clough. His brother Brad lives on the main floor.
After a career that included academia and work with oil and geological research companies, John is now retired. He and Jean split their time between the Vineyard, their official residence, and Los Alamos, N.M.
His great-grandfather came to the Vineyard from Monmouth, Maine. “One of his older brothers went to sea from New Bedford on a whaler and settled on the Vineyard in the first half of the 1800s, 1834 or so,” John said. “He married an Island girl and lived in the big house at the top of Center Street, that was Rod Backus’s house, Hilda Backus is still there. His back yard extended to Tashmoo. When he retired from the sea, all sailors wanted to become farmers and all farmers wanted to become sailors; he grew lots of fruits and vegetables and apparently just gave them away.”
His other brother, Marston, an artist from Southborough, also has an Island home.
John’s interest in radio was sparked when he was around 13, thanks in part to Dave Noble. Dave was the last sailor to live in the old Marine Hospital. Starting in 1949, until he died in 1968, Dave Noble hosted an informal weekly ham radio gathering. In 1955, John got into into the habit of stopping by and visiting him, and he’d talk on the radio.
At the age of 15, John got his ham radio license. John was also fixing radios at George Anthony’s store, Island Electronics, a job he held through high school.
He went on to study electrical engineering at Northeastern University, then worked in the acoustics lab at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for four years — going out on cruises with geophysicists, helping them with the radios and recording seismic activity. He commuted back and forth to Vineyard Haven in a small boat with Stan Poole and John Schilling, who was a chemist there, and who is now the Vineyard Haven fire chief.
Interested in geophysics, John attended the University of Wisconsin graduate school in Madison. Those studies allowed him to fulfill his boyhood dream of going to Antarctica as part of an academic expedition. It was his job to take radar equipment on snowcats into the interior.
“It was 1965 and I was 23,” he said. “We had three vehicles and 10 or 11 people — geologists, geophysicists, a couple of drivers and mechanics, a navigator and a glaciologist.”
The trip, as did the many that followed, lasted about two months.
John took 10 trips over 15 years.
“On all the field parties I was involved with, I handled all of the official Navy traffic. You had to check in daily, and if they didn’t hear from you in 72 hours they had to launch a search and rescue, sending out C-130s over the continent looking for you. When we had the drill camp there were a lot of flights coming in and out, and I had to handle the radio communications with the pilots for landing and takeoff. On the amateur radio side, we had 40 people at our camp, and the only way to communicate with home, besides occasional letters, [was] through the radio with a phone patch. When my son learned how to use the telephone, he knew that he’d say ‘over,’ and he’d say, ‘Hi Dad, over.’ That was popular, so the Navy provided me with the best equipment in the world.” Jean adds, “It made for happier scientists and happier families.”
It took him nine years to get through grad school: he’d go to Antarctica in the fall, miss the first semester and then get back too late to register for the second semester. So he’d miss entire years. He finally got his Ph.D. and spent a few years teaching at the University of Nebraska, then North Carolina State, before leaving academia to take a job with Marathon Oil Co. in Casper, Wyo., before going into technical training with one of the seismic companies in Houston.
Since 2009, John has been involved with an amateur radio group in Los Alamos, and works in search and rescue there. “I’ve always been interested in the public service side of amateur radio, from the nets here, from doing the MS bike ride on the Vineyard, the Crop Walk; these organizations directly request through amateur radio clubs assistance with communications,” he said. “The same with the Falmouth Road Run, the dispatcher for what I was doing was in the same communications van as the sheriff, the State Police, the Falmouth Police. They’re all handling communications for different groups, but can talk to each other. That’s done through amateur radio emergency services. Now the search and rescue in New Mexico is a serious business, because a lot of people get lost in the mountains. [There is a state search and rescue agency that coordinates the amateurs, and] Homeland Security is involved in training in the bureaucratic part. The Los Alamos Amateur Radio Club has a trailer that can go out to the site with equipment and support things the state doesn’t have, or the state police don’t have, or search and rescue doesn’t have.”
The radio club is an important partner in these operations, ready to serve the community day or night. That is not the case on the Vineyard.
John said the amateur radio club on Island is “falling apart right now. The regular weekly network of calling in is pretty much gone. The website is gone.”
New blood is needed to keep amateur radio alive on the Vineyard. John has given many presentations about amateur radio.
“The highest number of licensed amateurs is since 2012. There are kids in high school who are interested in the technical side,” John said, “Another reason there are more licensed is they got rid of the Morse Code requirements, and generally radios now are less technical, how you tune it and making sure the radio matches the antenna, and how to adjust it when you change frequency. Now it’s all done by a computer, and analog radio frequency signal handling is almost lost. Any computer nerd can get on and operate a complicated radio. My one walkie-talkie that’s only a few years old has 20 memory channels, while my new one has 220 memory channels. The best radio receiver you can get now for any purpose is a little chip that plugs into your computer.”
John still belongs to the Houston Vintage Radio Club and the New Mexico Radio Collectors Club. He has restored all his radios.
Asked if his book collection encompasses radios, he said, “In 1965 I started collecting polar literature, mainly Antarctic. I have about 40 or 50 linear feet of Antarctic, about 200 volumes, including first editions of Scott and Shackleton, Perry, Albert Cook, and others.”
He houses his collection in New Mexico. On the Vineyard he inherited books from his uncle who taught literature at Brown, a whaling collection. John showed me an ex-library book about his great-grandfather and the mutiny on the whaleship Sharon, titled “In the Wake of Madness.”
Those interested in having John Clough come and speak about amateur radio may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.