JOSEPH — Ronald “Stormy” Burns retains a skill of a time gone by — that of sending and receiving Morse code.
Burns turned 90 on Wednesday, April 5, to a surprise gathering at the Cheyenne Cafe in Joseph and another gathering at his Joseph home.
Not a radioman, he was listening to and recording what America’s enemies were transmitting during the depths of the Cold War. He enlisted in 1952 — the end of Harry Truman’s administration — and served until 1973, into Richard Nixon’s administration and just after the end of the Vietnam War.
“All I did was listen to the bad guys,” he said. “In those days, it was pretty much the Russians and Chinese.”
Did he understand Russian or Chinese? Actually, it wasn’t necessary.
“All radio is in English,” he said. “English is the international language for radio; it has to be, otherwise every time a ship was going into port they wouldn’t know how to talk to the country because they wouldn’t be able to know all the different languages.”
But Burns doesn’t recall much, if anything, he heard in the way of coded messages. He admits his memory isn’t what it used to be.
“It’s just too many years and I don’t remember because I just didn’t consider it important to remember,” he said.
Although he served as a Navy cryptologic technician and a Morse code intercept officer, leaving the service as a chief petty officer, he worked for and with the National Security Agency his entire career.
“I worked for the NSA my whole Navy career,” he said. “I can tell you that I worked there, but some of the jobs that I had I can’t really talk about — they never told me I could or I couldn’t, but it was pretty much understood at the NSA — we had a saying: Never Say Anything is what NSA meant. So that way you were safe.”
Burns saw his job as fairly routine.
“All I did was copy code,” he said. “I was a cryptologic technician; an interceptor.”
But the fact remains, he just doesn’t recall any messages of significance.
“Nothing I can mention. We listened to the enemy,” he said. “That’s what intercept operators do; we listened to the bad guys.”
Originally from Marysville, California, just north of Sacramento, Burns learned Morse code young, beginning at 14 years old.
“I wasn’t trying to learn the code,” he said. “I was trying to get ‘Back to the Bible’ (radio) broadcasts, which was my favorite program. It was a 15-minute daily program, a Christian program. As I was listening for that, I heard Morse code. … So I started copying that.”
He got to where he was quite proficient at copying the code. He said he can copy it in his head at 50-60 words per minute, but slows to 40-50 wpm when recording it on a typewriter.
His daughter, Vicky Hannigan, said his proficiency astounds her.
“It amazes me how he beeps and bops so fast and always knows what they say,” she said.
“If it’s Morse code, I can copy it — because that’s all I’ve been doing,” he said.
Burns got the nickname “Stormy” more as a tribute to his father than for his own personality.
“My dad was a Coast Guard captain up and down the coast and he was known for his irate, crabby disposition,” he said. “The crew liked him, but he was very outspoken. Later on in life I decided I wanted a nickname so I picked ‘Stormy.’ Someone else actually called me that and I thought I liked that one.”
He said it didn’t really fit him, but he let it stand.
“I was retired Navy, but I was never a ‘stormy’ type. I was actually very well-behaved,” he said.
In addition to his Navy career, Burns also worked as a delivery truck driver, spending about 10 years delivering flowers.
“I delivered flowers for a while, and that was disgusting,” he laughed.
“You loved it, seeing all those women,” she said.
Burns said he and his wife, Shirley, moved here from Marysville almost by accident.
“I took a wrong turn,” he said. “We were coming from Marysville and headed to Idaho for some reason and ended up on the road to Enterprise.”
So they ended up staying, rented a home and raised seven children there.
“That was too many,” he joked. “But she kept insisting on having kids, so I had to oblige.”
Two of the children died young of smoke inhalation in a house fire.
“We’ve had some tragedies along the way,” he said.
The family first lived in Enterprise for several years and then in Joseph for the past five years. Again, his memory isn’t clear on how long they were in either town. Shirley died four years ago, he said.
“It gets kind of lonely after a while,” he said.
He’s also unsure just how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren he has.
“Lots,” he said. “I’ve never tried to figure it out.”
In addition to Burns’ interest in Morse code, he took up ham radio as a hobby. He now has a unit within arms’ length of the chair he usually sits in and has his own call sign — NG7X.
“No good seven times is what it stands for,” he joked.
But he’s never tried to make a profession of ham radio.
“It’s just a hobby,” he said.
He does have a Morse code key with which he can send the code on his ham radio.
Also a poet
In addition to his Morse code and ham radio activities, Burns also has written a bit for the Chieftain and even tries his hand at poetry. Again, his memory was foggy, but he did remember one poem:
“The higher the mountain,
“The cooler the breeze.
“The younger the couple,
“The tighter they squeeze.”
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