Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hamming It Up

Hamming It Up

I’ve been into radio from some of my very earliest memories. I loved listening to the radio, there’s a picture of the budding sound guy at the tender age of one, in my walker with the cans on (headphones) listening to Linda Ronstadt. In elementary school I was given a pair of walkie talkies that saw heavy usage right up through high school. They had a range of about 200 feet, but we thought they were the greatest, and they were on the same frequency as my buddy’s, so then we had four! I craved a CB radio from the time I saw my first Dukes of Hazzard episode. The CB craze hadn’t even begun to die down yet at the time and there they were, tantalizingly perched on garage sale tables and in the Radio Shack catalog.

I finally got one and stuck it in my first car. Not knowing a thing about radio, I just happened to luck out that the antenna was a good match, and I could talk a long way with it, ten or twelve miles sometimes. About this time I started to hear about ham radio, but it seemed like rocket science and really expensive. A lot of mailing away for things an soldering, I wanted to talk!

Years and years went by and in my mid twenties I found myself married with children and my brother-in-law living in my basement. He happened to work at Radio Shack (affectionately known as Cell Phone Shack by then) and was buying a scanner a week at one point. He had set up quite the listening station and could hear every police and fire dispatch in western New York, as well as airports, delivery trucks, baby monitors, and not least of all hams.

It caught my interest, an arcane pastime with secrets to delve, formulas to work out, things to build that involved crawling up on the roof with string and wire, and again, not least of all, boxes with lights and buttons! He had plenty of contact with the local hams at the Shack and when they caught on that some young blood was interested, they persuaded us to study for our tests. A couple months later we had Technician class licenses from the FCC and we got on the air. KC2PNF (myself) and KC2PNN, his girlfriend got her ticket at the same time, KC2PNE and is loving it as well.

Nearly two years later we’ve both upgraded to General class and are working on Extra (highest class with the most frequency privelages). The sky is the limit with this hobby, with everything from local, line-of-sight communications with VHF walkie talkies to world wide communication on the HF “low bands”, sattelite communications, microwaves, digital modes, amateur TV, the list goes on. There are antique gear enthusiasts who rebuild the great rigs of yester-year, guys that limit themselves to 5 watt “flea power” stations, guys that only do Morse Code, guys that operate HF from their cars, and even a few ladies that operate. With some borrowed equipment and scrounged savings we’re both making contacts across the country and around the world.

The really great part is that I can fit it into my busy life. My former hobby was doing sound for small concerts. Now that I’ve parlayed my expensive and time consuming hobby into a revenue stream for the family, I found myself looking for another expensive and time consuming hobby. Bass fishing was right out, don’t like boats, so was sculpture, just don’t have the chops. But with a ham radio on the dashboard of my truck, I can while away the many hours I spend on the road, talking to friends and making new acquaintances. Hurray for multi-tasking.

The real thrill though is sneaking out to my “shack” , the bench I have set up in my shop with my HF (High frequency, 1.8 MHz to 30 MHz) the one that let’s me talk around the world when conditions are right. I’d love to be one of these rich retired guys that just buys and sells stuff on eBay and talk on the radio all day. Or even to have a full afternoon to spin the dials and make contacts. But as it is, sometimes I get twenty or thirty minutes to “work the bands” and usually I can make a contact or two and it’s always thrilling.

For example, one day last week I had ten minutes in the morning and I spoke to a station in Lithuania on the 20 meter band like he was in the room. The next minute I was down on 40 meters and just barely made out a guy in Ohio. You never know what you’re going to get. Then there are special event stations, guys pile up trying to get in and make a contact so they can get a special card to commemorate whatever they’re commemorating. And then contest weekends when it’s just a free-for-all, stations all over the world clamoring to contact one another and score points. I’m fast turning into a contest junkie myself.

It’s not for everybody, even the ARRL website isn’t very welcoming to newbies, and that’s part of their job. Most hams find their way in from CB, or they work in communications or at least electronics. But if you find that you look at ham articles on line and you kind of speak the language, you should find a local club, study up a little and take the test. The FCC is practically giving away licenses these days and most hams are really glad to help out the noobs.

Here’s a few links to check out besides the ARRL (American Radio Relay League).
QRZ – www.qrz.com (QRZ is Morse Code short hand for “who are you”, there’s a lookup for finding out who’s behind the call sign. Also, practice tests for the FCC exams, a million links, articles and forums, even gear for sale.)
eHam – www.eham.net (more of same, but the best parts are the articles written by hams and open for comment.)

The learning curve is near vertical at first, but once you learn the jargon it gets a lot easier. So, 73 OM, I’m about to join the YL in the house. See you a little further on down the log.

(Translation: 73 is Morse Code short hand for goodbye it’s also an anagram--∑∑∑ ∑∑∑--, people working the voice modes just say 73 at the end of a QSO, conversation. OM is short hand for Old Man, which most hams are comfortable calling one another and being called, regardless of age. Ham’s wives are referred to as YLs (young ladies) And the FCC requires you to keep a log of all your contacts, not that anyone ever checks them. Instead of, “see you later” we say we hope to see you on our log sheet again.)

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