George Frank Worts was born in 1892--the reported events would have taken place around 1911.
Radio Broadcast, May, 1924, pages 27-32:
Adventures of a Wireless Free-Lance
My First SOS--A Farce Comedy
By GEORGE F. WORTS
THERE was nothing in the least amusing about it when it was happening. We were soberly and solemnly aware that the most dramatic situation that can arise in the life of a ship confronted us. The North American was fast aground and lost in a heavy fog. Five hundred passengers, mostly women and children, were endangered. Responsibility for all these lives had been suddenly dropped upon our shoulders. A heavy swell--the aftermath of a gale--was lifting us and dropping us with great thumps upon a rocky shoal somewhere in the Strait of Mackinac; and the ship was canting dismayingly to starboard.
It was a tremendous moment. I had been "pounding brass" for two years, and here at last was the opportunity for which I had been secretly and shamefully hoping--the opportunity, I suspect, for which every youthful wireless operator secretly and shamefully hopes--of sitting down at the key and rapping out the three most electrifying letters in the alphabet--S O S!
I had retired to my stateroom a little after six o'clock from the midnight-to-six watch and was asleep when it happened. A sudden jar, a deep banging, startled me awake. We had, I learned later, taken the wrong bearing on a certain light during the night, and were a mile or two off our course.
I sprang from my bunk and put my head out of the porthole. Cold white fog streamed past my face. We had been creeping through fog when I had turned in, and it seemed to me that the fog had become thicker. It was impossible to see farther than twenty portholes in either direction and the white hull above me vanished into creamy nothingness.
From every porthole within range a head protruded, nose down. Some were men's heads and some were women's heads adorned with braids, kid-curlers and lace caps. Every one was gazing at the water, and no one said a word.
The engine had stopped and the ship was as still, as peaceful as though we were at anchor in some snug, quiet harbor. Then a long wave rolled out of the fog and lifted us. We settled down again with a harsh scraping sound and the whole ship seemed to shiver as we listed to starboard.
A woman at a porthole above me said, in an amazed voice, "Why! we're aground!" She did not seem alarmed. In fact, no one seemed alarmed. That, to me, was astonishing. I had heard that in moments such as this every one became panic-stricken. The excitement came later.
We all stared with fascination at the water. It was pale blue and so clear that we could easily see the stones on the bottom. They were of all sizes, some as small as golf-balls, some as large as basket-balls.
My stateroom door opened and Kenneth Little, the junior operator, burst in with a white face and excited eyes. He was grinning nervously.
"Well" he got out breathlessly. "We're on!"
We exchanged glances with which every wireless operator can sympathize. Our great moment had come! No longer were we the playthings of passengers--luxuries forced upon unappreciative owners. We were, provided the North American did not back off the shoal under her own power, the two most important individuals on board the ship! We were about to become heroes!
"Can she get off by herself?" I asked anxiously.
He didn't believe so. She had been running through the fog at half-speed and she had suddenly been brought to a jolting stop. It wasn't conceivable that she could back off that ledge.
Another wave lifted the beautiful white bulk of the North American and dropped her with a harsh deep booming still farther up on the shoal. The hull trembled as the engine started full speed in reverse. A glance from the porthole assured me that steam was being wasted. The golf-balls and the basket-balls remained stationary while bubbles from the propeller swept forward.
I had always pictured myself, when this moment came, as a man of coolness, courage, and decision.
"Get back on the job," I said crisply. "Stand by and wait for me. Test out the emergency outfit. Call up the engine-room and tell 'em we'll want plenty of juice."
"Hadn't I better send out an S O S?" he inquired hopefully.
"Not by any means," I said. "Stand by and wait for me."
"Stand by" is a phrase that has always appealed to me, along with other nautical terms such as "Steady as you go," and "Bright light two points off the port bow, sir!"
When I entered the wireless room the telephone from the pilot house commenced to ring. The first mate nervously wanted to know if everything was all right with us. I reported that we were standing by and ready to send an S O S at a moment's notice. He told me rudely to keep my shirt on and not to send an S O S without the Captain's explicit orders.
I asked him if there seemed to be much chance of our backing off the shoal under our own power.
"How do I know?" he said irritably. "Stay where you are and don't go fooling around the decks. We may need you."
It appeared that, in the opinion at least of the first mate, I was not yet the man of the hour. I devoted myself to an inspection of the apparatus.
The wireless room was situated in the starboard after corner of a square hall between decks known as the "social hall." At one corner of the social hall was the purser's office. Across from that was the steward's office. In another corner was the baggage room; and in the fourth corner was the large glass and mahogany cage housing the radio apparatus and the newsstand. We ran the newsstand--sold magazines, candies and cigars--in addition to operating the wireless.
Our transmitter was a 2 k. w., 240-cycle rotary synchronous set--the first of its kind to be installed on the Great Lakes, and a source of endless trouble. Our receiving set was a heritage from United Wireless days, a loose-coupled tuner and a carborundum crystal detector in which we defiantly used silicon and a cat-whisker of mandolin E-string. The audion had yet to cast its pale glow upon radio scenery.
If the first mate did not appreciate our importance, certainly the passengers did. They swarmed about the newsstand, asking no end of idiotic questions. How long would we be aground? Did the Captain know where we were? Was the fog going to lift? Were ships coming to our relief? How did we know if anybody was calling us when we didn't have those rubber things on over our ears?
I made the interesting discovery that human beings in moments of great crisis crave chewing-gum. Every one wanted to buy chewing-gum. And so I have come to the conclusion that gum chewing is the American way of expressing deep emotion.
We closed the newsstand emphatically. Somehow, selling chewing-gum to anxious passengers did not harmonize with the dignity of our position. We were wireless heroes, not chewing-gum salesmen!
The long waves continued to roll up under the stern from out of the fog, driving the ship farther and farther upon the ledge and tilting us more and more to starboard. The pounding did not excite the passengers, but the listing did. The opinion prevailed that the North American was about to turn turtle.
Within half an hour after the first impact, many of the passengers put on life-belts. The social hall was in a hubbub. Every one was asking every one else questions.
The second assistant engineer, covered with mud and rust, raced through the social hall and demanded the use of our telephone to the pilot house. He had been down in the bilges and wanted to inform the Old Man that no visible damage had been suffered by the garboard strakes.
"She isn't taking any water, but we're stuck tight," he reported excitedly.
The first mate asked for me.
"The Captain wants you to get hold of Mackinac Island and have a tug sent out."
"Yes, sir!" I snapped. "Where are we?" They didn't, it developed, know exactly where we were.
"On one of the Ducks," he guessed. "Tell the tug to nose around the Ducks. We're probably on Little Duck."
"Yes, sir!" I snapped. A picture came into my mind of the Old Man and I in the act of leaving the ship--sticking to our posts to the very last, while the ship was ground to finders on one of the Ducks.
This vision possibly was prompted by a sudden and sickening realization that the Mackinac Island operator would not be on the job for at least an hour. It was still very early in the morning.
There was nothing else to do, so I started the motor-generator and called WHQ--the Mackinac Island station. There was no response. At that time of day no one was on the air. Even the static seemed to be reposing.
The telephone rang again, and this time the voice of the first mate was agitated.
"Has that tug started?" he wanted to know. I told him that the Mackinac Island station wasn't open and wouldn't be open for another hour.
"You've got to get word to Mackinac somehow," he said. "We can see land now. We're on Little Duck. This wind is freshening. There isn't any time to lose, Sparks. Get busy!"
I got busy. Futilely I called WHQ. I called and called and called. The operator probably hadn't left his boarding house. It was a tormenting situation. In desperation I called VBB, the Canadian Marconi station at Sault Ste. Marie. Someone was always on duty in VBB. He could put the message on the land line to Mackinac Island. Then I realized with a sensation of sickness that the Western Union office at Mackinac Island did not open until WHQ opened.
VBB did not answer. I called him feverishly for five minutes. Then I rang the pilot house. The Captain answered. I told him that I had tried to raise Mackinac Island and the Soo, but that no one answered.
"See if there isn't some ship near us," he replied.
"That means an S O S," I told him.
"All right--send as S O S!" he snapped. "But get somebody. What are you fellows being paid for?"
And so the great moment came, not precisely as I had wished, perhaps; but here, at all events, it was. After two years of faithful brass pounding I was about to send my first S O S! I was divided between perspiring agitation and a consciousness of the part I played in this epic maritime drama.
Kenneth, the junior operator, looked at me enviously as I slipped into the chair and grasped the handle of the motor-generator starter.
"S O S?" he gasped.
"Yes," I said fatefully. "It's S O S! Keep that door shut! There's somebody else who wants some gum!"
It opened even as I shouted the warning. A perspiring young man with disheveled hair and wild but determined eyes forced his way inside. The eyes of dozens of passengers on the other side of the glass stared at us expectantly. In his hand the young man had clasped a sheaf of papers covered with pencilling. He was a reporter on the Chicago Examiner, and this story was, of course, a big one. Nearly all of our passengers were Chicago people. It was a front-page story, worthy of a seven-column streamer.
He shoved the pile of paper at me.
"I want to get this right off," he panted. "It's press. It has right of way over all traffic. It's to be sent collect."
He produced documentary and other evidence to support the statement that he actually was a reporter. Sweat was streaming down his face, and sweat was streaming down mine. I was trying to push him out of the room. He was trying to push me into my chair. We weren't making much progress.
"Look here," I said dramatically. "I am in the midst of sending an S O S. How dare you break in here!"
"The devil you are!" he cried. He snatched the paper from my hands and wrote rapidly on the top sheet: "Radio men sending frantic calls for help!" I glanced bewilderedly over his shoulder at other things he had written. The North American, I learned, was slowly being pounded to fragments by a savage sea on the gleaming fangs of a rockbound coast. Women and children were running screaming about the decks. The ship's officers were determinedly setting them an example of coolness and courage. The lifeboats were in readiness. A furious gale was blowing up. The lives of five hundred Chicagoans were in acute peril.
"That's bunk," I snorted. "I won't send that stuff. We aren't being pounded to fragments. Nobody's screaming, and a gale is not blowing up. You better let the skipper see that."
"This is press," he shouted. "If you don't send it, I'll have you prosecuted! There's a law that says--that says---."
"If you don't clear out of here," I stopped him, "I'll have you put in irons. You're interfering with the despatch of a distress signal." I appealed desperately to my partner. "Ken, get him out, will you?"
Kenneth grappled with our natural enemy while I sidled into the chair and started the generator. The reporter broke away from Kenneth and shoved his one-act melodrama beside my sending arm. My hand was already at the key.
"Won't you please get it off when you're through with that S O S?" he begged, and there were tears in his eyes.
"I'll have to edit it first," I said angrily.
"If you touch a line of that copy," he shrieked, "I'll have you lugged the minute we hit Chicago! I'll break you! I'll beat you up! I'll have your license taken away! I'll---"
Kenneth pushed him out into the crowd in the social hall, and he was shaking with sobs. I could have brained him. He had cheapened my grand dramatic moment and set every nerve to jumping.
My fingers danced on the key.
"Z Q P!--S O B!--F O S!" the spark stammered. Then I steadied my hand and ripped off a string of very creditable S O S's.
I threw over the aerial switch to the receiving position. The mournful lazy drawl of a big ore freighter came instantly out of the fog. The name of the ship is forgotten.
"Where are you, O. M?" I have always disliked operators who use that solicitous and ingratiating phrase O. M.--"old man." "Are you sinking, O. M? You come in good and loud, O. M. Stick to the ship, O. M."
I coldly informed him that our danger was not yet acute, that we were aground on Little Duck Island and wanted to have some one tow us off.
He replied with a series of irritable "9's". That meant, in those days, "I am being interfered with."
I wondered who might be jamming us, and while I wondered the smooth buzz of VBB, the Soo, enlightened me.
"What is your position?" he asked. "Are you in immediate danger?"
I told him to stand by, that he was jamming me, and called the ore boat. VBB came back, insisting on having my position, and a report on the character of our predicament. He additionally wanted to know why I had sent an S O S without first calling him. My nerves were on edge from that tiff with the reporter, and I told him sarcastically that it was a real nice day and I hoped he had enjoyed his smoke. I used profanity freely.
He informed me that the use of profanity was strictly forbidden on aerial circuits and was punishable by a fine and a long term of imprisonment under section 112-A or 233-B or 40-11-X of the International Radio Regulations. "You should be ashamed of yourself to use such language in a situation as grave as this." Presumably he meant that my chances of getting into Heaven were imperiled. He finished his sermon, and I again addressed my invisible friend on the freighter. Where were they? He reported that they were just rounding McGuipin Point, northbound, which meant that it would take them hours to reach us. That hope was too dim.
I resorted to a few more S O S calls, mingling the distress signals with calls of WHQ and, when I signed off, WHQ's rasping spark answered. In all of my years of operating, I have never been so relieved to hear a spark.
Complications immediately ensued. The operator at WHQ (there was but one) was then very new to the game. I am glad to say that he later became an expert operator.
His reply to my S O S was bewildering. After wishing me a courteous good morning and making inquiries touching upon the state of my health, he sent me all of the baseball scores for the previous day. He then proceeded to furnish me with long selections from the overnight news. He was not absolutely to blame. For time-saving purposes, we had abbreviated the request for ball scores to the three letters S B S--send ball scores. The similarity between S B S and S O S is noteworthy. Perhaps he was sleepy that morning.
When he was through regaling me with the topics of the day, I slowly and patiently informed him that it was succor and not base ball scores that I had asked for. Here we were, piled up on the rocks, every moment precious, and he was using perfectly good electricity to tell me that Charlie Chaplin had just signed a contract for $1,000 a week. Good God!
For several seconds there was no intelligible response from him--only the stuttering of his spark as his paralyzed hand tried vainly to work the key. In broken Continental he presently told me to stand by a moment while he telephoned the waterfront for a tug.
And so my heroic moment came, was lived, and passed. I telephoned the Captain that a tug was on the way. I read the stirring one act melodrama with its cast of five hundred screaming women and children supported by the ship's officers who set their cool and courageous example. I tore it up and dropped it into the wastebasket. We were on a popular run; and that story, had it been published in Chicago, would have ruined our passenger business for the rest of the season. The reporter threatened me with sundry revenges, none of which I suffered.
After WHQ had assured me that the tug was on her way, the tension subsided. It was all over. Kenneth and I were once more commercial wireless operators. A wonderful opportunity had been given us to do a land office business.
"Go out and pass the word around," I suggested, "that when news of this reaches Chicago, all their relatives and friends will be scared green. Drop the hint that it would be a good plan to send radios reassuring them."
It worked very nicely. Kenneth took charge and I went on deck for a breath of fresh air. The fog had evaporated and the warm Michigan sun beat, brightly down upon sparkling blue water--and a little island covered with evergreens a few hundred yards ahead. The news had travelled magically over the ship that a tug was on the way from Mackinac Island and that there was nothing now to worry about.
I was proud of myself. Very few wireless operators had gone through this ordeal. I had sent my S O S--a very authentic and dramatic S O S--and was one of that noble company captained by Jack Binns. I glanced up affectionately at the smoke-blackened four-strand antenna and heard a man exclaim:
"Look! There goes that wireless operator!"
And a very pretty girl said, in awed tones, "Gee whiz!"
I pretended not to hear. With head up and shoulders back, I proceeded on my way.
Don't be uncharitable. I was only nineteen.
In the above story, an emergency "SOS" call was misheard as SBS, an non-emergency signal. There was at least one occasion where the reverse occurred, and a non-emergency signal was misheard as a distress call. According to the March, 1925 edition of Carl Dreher's Radio Broadcast magazine column, "As The Broadcaster Sees It", the story was as follows:
Shortly after 5 P. M. on December 17, 1924, a steamship, sight unseen, name unknown, poked her nose into the waters of New York Harbor and called a land station with her radio transmitter. The call letters she signed were SWS, a combination which, with the changing of a single dot to single dash, becomes SOS, the international radio distress call which takes precedence over all other human agitations of the ether on land or sea. Whether it was a slight stuttering of the key on the part of the operator of the good ship, or a trifling inaccuracy in reading on the part of the vigilant radio electrician at NAH of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, that SWS was changed to an SOS. NAH blared out a general QRT which, in the radio lingo, is a peremptory summons for everybody to shut up immediately or sooner. At 5.15 all the broadcasting stations went off the air in the middle of jazz selections, market reports, interviews with celebrated bootleggers, and advice to the lovelorn. A pall of silence hung over the harbor, and telephones were pressed to thousands of pairs of cauliflower ears while thousands of auditory nerves strained to hear who was sinking and where. The suspense was broke when the SWS piped up to report that all was well and that her call was not a distress signal. NAH retired from the scene. Traffic was resumed at 5.21. SWS is the call, according to the books, of the Greek steamer Chelatros. Boy, page the King of Greece and ask him whether he can't find a less delicate combination of letters for his merchant fleet. SGS, SMS, and a few others also would not be missed.