Karl Geng is hard to categorize.
He is the retired head of Siemens’ U. S. telecommunications business.
He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Auxiliary, and retains responsibility for the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) covering Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
He speaks English and German with perfection and can get by in several other languages.
He is a skilled-enough pilot to have flown his twin-engine airplane from Boston, across the Arctic ice cap, to Munich – before GPS -- by dead reckoning.
He built a helicopter of some 20,000 parts and took it up a thousand feet to test it.
He knows poisonous mushrooms from edible … has the training to pick any lock … is SCUBA-certified. And he drives a red Ferrari.
Karl Geng, Hi-Tech Renaissance Man
How does such a man relax on vacation?
I should have been tipped off when he asked permission to bring his portable shortwave radio station – a compact suitcase that cossets enough electronics to link him to the world.
After I greeted Karl at Vieques airport and brought him to Casa Cascadas, he set up the station in his suite even before he unpacked his clothes.
Not an easy task, because my house, a minimalist, all-concrete design, is slick as a ping-pong ball – no protuberances on which to attach the length of wire Karl needed as an antenna.
So he strung the wire out his second-floor window … across our 52-foot swimming pool … to the top of the fully extended handle of the pool net, which he lashed to a deck chair … and finally to a high branch on a stand of sea grapes in the orchard.
Extend the pool net handle, tie it to a chaise -- bingo! Antenna!
He tested this Rube Goldberg fabrication with calls to other operators not in the Vieques neighborhood – mainland U. S., for example, Canada, Guyana and St. Helena in the South Atlantic.
The next day, Karl went to a hardware store to buy more wire – and two lengths of three-quarter-inch irrigation pipes.
He secured one plastic pipe vertically to the Brooke Grant sculpture in our Meditation Garden … tied the extra wire to the top of the pipe … and ran it up to his suite.
He jury-rigged the second pipe to replace the pool net, so I could clean the pool.
He now had antenna wire running both south and north out of his bedroom windows, and by the end of the day he had talked with at least 28 countries on all seven continents. Which included his bounding out of bed at four in the morning for chats with Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.
Commercial pipe and wire, a commissioned sculpture -- bingo! Australia!
There was no stopping him.
He moved from voice to Morse and then, connecting a small PC to the radio, conversed in digital modes like radio teletype and slow-scan TV.
Confession: I always thought of “ham radio” as the hobby of teenage boys.
Yes, Karl was a teenager when he became a ham operator. His son received his license at the age of 12 – and his grandson at 11.
But I stand corrected.
Our military considers shortwave a crucial backup.
MARS operators, for example, provided the only communication with the outside world in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. And Karl totes his “radio suitcase” wherever he travels, ready to provide emergency communications when all else fails.
He’s recognized as “N1DL” to thousands of shortwave operators around the world.
And for a few days, it was his pleasure to make humble Vieques the hub of the planet.
In my next blog: "Mourning Dove Stew, anyone?"