Sunday, September 2, 2007

For two men, the code still calls: Volunteers bring Morse code to railroad museum

Telegram Staff Writer

To the untrained ear, it's gibberish or white noise. The quick-to-come dashes and dots sound like never-ending bullet shots or beeps - depending on the volume and type of key used.
But to 90-year-old Norman Resor and 79-year-old Floyd Bumpus, the shots and beeps make perfect sense.
'I don't hear dots and dashes, I hear words,' Reser said. 'When I speak, you don't hear 't, h and e.' You just hear 'the.' It's the same for me.'
The two gentlemen work the telegraph booth at Temple's Railroad and Heritage Museum. Telegraphy is a method of communication that predates the telephone; it uses Morse code. For more than 100 years since the Civil War, trains talked to each other with telegraphs.
'If you have one train coming from one direction and another train coming from the opposite direction on the same track, and if you don't have a way to talk, well then you have a problem,' Reser said. 'Morse code was how the depots would communicate arrivals and departures.'
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the same railroad telegraph line went from Galveston to Fort Worth.
'There were other depots between those two cities, and all the depots had telegraph offices,' Reser said, explaining how telegraph lines worked. 'A message that Galveston sent to Fort Worth was heard in all the depots between them.'
Confusing? Not for those who know the code.
'Think of a crowded restaurant,' Reser said. 'You're talking with the people at your table. You can hear that the others in the restaurant are talking. You recognize it as language but don't hear every word they're saying. It's the same in code. You don't pay attention until someone says your name.'
In the case of Morse code, it was a call name or ID number.
Telephone conversations replaced telegraphs for train communication in the late 1960s.
The museum's telegraph booth mimics the telegraph offices of two train depots. Reser works the Temple office, and Bumpus works the Moody office.
Bumpus has been volunteering for the train museum since 2001 and Reser since 1982. They periodically demonstrate how trains communicated with Morse code whenever the museum has special events. Their next demonstration is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 15.
'They're fun to watch,' said Craig Ordner, museum curator and archivist. 'They love what they do. They send messages back and forth, laughing the whole time. And then they give kids a chance to come up with a message for them to put in code.'
Bumpus came to know Morse code in his role as an amateur HAM radio operator whereas Reser worked as a professional railroad telegrapher in Illinois 1938-1967.
The Telegram had the opportunity to see Bumpus and Reser work their code in a private demonstration on Aug. 28.
Before discussing the mechanics of Morse code and discussing it's history, the two jokesters started beeping at each other, ignoring their company. Bursts of laughter broke out between the beeping dashes and dots.
'You know we're good at what we do,' Bumpus beeped in Morse code in the mock Moody depot.
'Yes. Yes, we are,' came Reser's telegraphed response from the mock Temple Depot.
The other jokes the two men swapped in code were 'There's no buffalo east of Temple,' and 'I just saved you money on car insurance.'
Though exchanged often, the jokes weren't planned.
Bumpus said it was all spontaneous.
'It's just like talking,' Bumpus said. 'You have a favorite joke, but you never know when you're going to say it until you say it.'
To further demonstrate his skill, Reser started quoting the U.S. Constitution not from memory but from another set of beeping dashes and dots. The phrases he quoted weren't the more familiar ones from the beginning. They were obscure, from an amendment's amendment to yet another amendment.
Bumpus said he 'rigged it up' to where a computer would understand the Morse code and instantaneously input it on a Word document.
Bumpus grinned as he explained the system he engineered.
'I like taking things apart and putting them together. I don't buy computers. I buy the components and build them,' Bumpus said. 'I like knowing how things work and go together.'
His fondness for understanding pattern, Bumpus said, explains his passion for code.
But for Reser, the code was another day at work in a profession shared by his father, uncle and brother-in-law. His son smudged the family resume when he chose to become a minister, Reser said, grinning.
Reser describes a typical telegraph office as small and hot.
'We had a stove, so it kept warm in the winter,' Reser said. 'But there was no ventilation when it got hot outside.'
The days were long too, Reser said.
'Most days were busy,' Reser said. 'But there were days - and nights - when it would be quiet and time would drag. I remember several nights when I would play chess with my brother-in-law in Morse code. It was a way to pass the time.'
Playing the game in code was easy, he said.
'The squares were numbered,' Reser said. 'I'd say (in code), 'Move Bishop from one to two.' And he'd come back (in code) with, 'Knight from three to five.''
Reser's decision to leave the telegraphy business in 1967 came because of the introduction of computer technology in communication.
'Up until right before I left, we had done all our own record keeping,' Reser said, talking about logs of received and sent messages. 'But then IBM came in and messed things up.'
Unlike his pal Bumpus who adores computers, Reser said he doesn't touch the things.
Morse code was out of Reser's life then. He didn't miss it until the late 1970s when his recreational readings reintroduced him to a favorite topic: trains.
'It was a decade or more that I didn't think about the code,' Reser said. 'It's like riding a bike. Once you learn it, you know it.'
Music and dance filled his years without code. He performed professionally with the Norm Reser Band in Bureau, Ill.
'That kept me busy,' Reser said. 'They called us the Bureaucrats. You get it? It's like Aristocrats.'
Reser sees no connection between music and code.
'I think they're two completely different things,' Reser said. 'But people always did tell me they could recognize my Morse code messages.'
His coworkers in other depots, he said, would know Reser was the one at the other end of the line before he identified myself.
'They always said I had a little different swing to it,' Reser said. 'They told me my Morse had more rhythm to it.'
Perhaps, there is a bit of connection between Morse code and music.
He's now returned to code, but he didn't forsake song and melody. The happy-faced fellow said he still dances every chance he gets.
'I still sing too,' Reser said.
But not Bumpus. He's much more comfortable with radios, nuts, wires and bolts.
'Don't look at me,' Bumps interjected. 'You don't want to hear me sing, not one word.'

Morse code in history
Samuel Morse (1791-1872) invented the American Morse code in 1840. It was the main source of long-distance communication in the United States until 1912 when Congress decided to replace it with the International Continental Code.
“The difference between the two codes is the spaces,” Floyd Bumpus explained. “Morse code has short spaces of silence in some places for some letters. The new code gets rid of the spaces. Other than that, they’re pretty similar.”
“When it was sinking, the Titanic was using the new code calling for help,” Norm Reser said. “But the U.S.S. Californian only knew American Morse code. There was a lack of understanding.”
And the boat sank, prompting the 1912 decision to outlaw American Morse code.
-- Both Confederate and Union troop leaders used Morse code to communicate strategy in the Civil War, 1861-1865.
-- Via the United Press and Associated Press wires, newspaper editors kept track of the news via Morse code 1860-1920.
“News would come over that wire all day everyday,” Reser said. “Editors would listen to it and decide which news they did and didn’t want.”
-- In the early 1900s, the stock market had a line that went to brokers’ officers in principle U.S. Cities.
-- The Post Office and Western Union used telegraphs for personal messages in the 1920s and 1930s. Until seven months ago, the Western Union would still send telegrams.

Morse code and music
A Google search yields some interesting connections between Morse code and music.
The rhythm base for ‘YYZ’ by Rush from the 1981 album “Moving Pictures” is the Morse coding of the letters YYZ. Commentary said the YYZ code carries through the whole song as its beat.
The song “Watching You Without Me” from Kate Bush’s album “Hounds of Love” is based on the Morse code distress signal SOS. And Morse code is featured on Ronnie Montrose’s albums “Elektra” and “Gamma 3.”
The video game “Red Storm Rising” by Microprose, in its opening credits, has a musical tune that contains the Morse code for “the Russians are Coming.”

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