An Extra Slice of Ham

Most of you know that in a previous life, I was an actor. You can see how successful I was by my long-term employment with the government. Back then, I did a lot of stage plays and I admit it, I’m a huge ham. I love stage because you can be broad and loud and all those things that are far tougher to do on film. I was never very good at subtlety.

In the fall, at the urging of #1 son, Jonathon Wolfe, I jumped into the amateur radio field, which in the vernacular is called ham radio:

a : a showy performer; especially : an actor performing in an exaggerated theatrical style

b : a licensed operator of an amateur radio station

Guilty on both counts.

I like figuring technology out. I like the process of tinkering around with it until I either make it work of get so frustrated that I ask for help. Amateur radio fills that particular need for me. Radio transmission theory is a bottomless pit of learning opportunities and over my head much of the time, even though I have a background in technology from my college days, my time running broadcasting stations and networks, and my time in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. (Pro Patria Vigilans, bitches!)

In the few months since I got my license and ventured out into the radio frequency ether, I’ve made some observations. Let me be clear: these are observations – not criticisms. Here we go.

1. There are two schools of thought when it comes to ham radio license exams: Learn the material and take the test, or just memorize the test questions and answers (there are hundreds of ’em) and learn as you go. I’m kind of OK with either because learning by doing is a time-honored tradition.

I assumed that everyone in this hobby was as equally delighted as I was to figure stuff out on their own. I assumed that this was one of the reasons we all get into the hobby in the first place.

There is a subsection of folks like me who are perfectly fine, for example, taking eight weeks to learn how to program a DMR radio. No exaggeration, it took me eight weeks before I made my first call on purpose. Perhaps it’s because of my advancing age that I’m more patient now than I used to be. And get off my lawn!

There’s also a subsection of operators who want the easy solutions yesterday. (I suspect that these are the kinds of people that want the answer from their computer BEFORE they hit the ENTER key.)

2. People are people everywhere. I’ve made this observation about every country I’ve physically visited and the international amateur radio community is no exception. I’ve talked on the radio with people from several different countries. I marvel at the universality of the experience among the operators I hear on the air. Korea, Canada, The Philippines, Australia, the UK, South America. It really shouldn’t surprise me how similar we humans are to our brethren ham operators around the world, but it did. It reinforces my contention that people are people no matter where you go. Governments may suck – and most do – but people are people everywhere. I find that very comforting.

3. There are assholes on the air just like in real life. About a month or so ago, after having become somewhat comfortable talking to people on the air, I stumbled into a talk group on DMR, one of the many digital standards. It was one of my very first times on DMR. A talk group is just like it sounds – a chat room where people actually talk with one another instead of typing back and forth. There was a verbal knock-down-drag-out war of words going on between a few individuals and it was loud, rude and the primary instigator would not shut up. I was horrified because in the months since I had gotten my license, I’d only experienced hugely warm welcomes and willingness to help from everyone particularly to the new guys like me.

I should have expected that it wouldn’t all be sunshine and blue skies, but that first experience on DMR was shocking in its contrast to my other limited experiences. I almost didn’t go back. I did, of course, go back to that talk group as well as other ones and have had some wonderful conversations with folks on DMR. But yikes! If I’d have heard that first, I would have a very different perspective on the amateur radio community.

A KWM-2. I used to see these in Army MARS stations quite regularly.

4. My introduction to ham radio was in the 1960’s. My childhood friend’s dad, Nathan Vance, was K8TMX. (How I’ve remembered his name and call sign all these years still surprises me.) Mr. Vance was in the middle of a conversation on his ham radio and must have seen me standing there with wide eyed amazement at the buttons and dials of an old-school Collins KWM-2. He took pity on me and let me talk on his radio to some South American country, as I recall. This being the 1960’s, he conducted his conversation with his fellow operator without the benefit of the internet to get him there. His radio was connected to a HUGE antenna in the backyard, and he communicated directly with the other operator.

Today, computers, digital radios and the Internet have really changed the landscape. Today’s digital standards like DMR, D-STAR and others rely on the Internet to get you out of the county. Some claim that using Internet back haul for amateur radio is cheating – not “pure” amateur radio. Then again, the nice thing about this digital world is that it’s instant gratification. With digital standards, you can start talking world-wide today. Right now.

I get the guys who say it’s cheating. They contend the purest form of amateur radio is totally self-reliant. Speaking candidly, I kinda fall into that camp myself. But with limited resources and real estate, I can’t set up a big antenna for talking around the world directly – my back yard isn’t big enough and my homeowners association probably wouldn’t let me if it were. Using these digital standards, which require far less power and shorter antennas, allows me to overcome the space and HOA obstacles that otherwise would limit the people I could reach. (One more thing about the digital standards – transmissions made in digital mode are clearer and are MUCH easier to hear for a guy like me who should be wearing hearing aids, but isn’t. This turned out to be a bigger deal for me than I thought it would be.)

5. For a guy like me who loves tinkering with tech, it’s addicting. As I already mentioned, amateur radio is a bottomless pit of learning opportunities in everything from rules and regulations to antenna physics and Earth-Moon-Earth communication. I’ll never run out of things to study and learn, if I’m so motivated. The downside to this is that you want to buy every damned radio or device you can lay your hands on not because you need it, but because it’s fun. That can get pricey and a little restraint goes a long way. (Ok, a LOT of restraint for me. I admit it.)

6. Unlike the Citizen’s Band radios, hams don’t use handles. We have names. Mine’s Dan, thank you very much. I like the lack of anonymity that hams insist upon. Yes, there’s potential for subterfuge and deceit, but particularly with the digital standards, it’s virtually impossible to hide your identity. It makes you responsible for how one conducts oneself on the air. Comparing that to Facebook or Twitter, I find this strikingly refreshing.

7. You can always find someone to talk to. (See #2 above.) If you’re willing to look around, and you’re not mic shy, (yes, that’s a thing) you can always find someone to talk with. There are a zillion frequencies out there and someone’s talking on at least one or two. There are a zillion standards both digital and analog that operators are using on these zillion frequencies. And there’s a zillion talkgroups, reflectors or repeaters on which someone is talking about something right now. Maybe not in your language, but they’re talking. Bottom line: there’s no excuse for saying “there’s no one on the air!” If you want to talk, there are a zillion ways to find someone just like you who wants to talk, too.

As I mentioned at the top, my son, Jonathon, got me started on this whole ham radio thing with a casual text message:

JW: “Hey, sir, do you have a HAM license?”

DW: “I do not. I used to carry a commercial radio operators license, but that was long before your arrival on my planet. …”

That’s what started it all. I have Jonathon to thank for planting the idea in my head. Since then, I’ve taken two tests, got my General Class license, and talked to lots of fellow operators around the country and around the world. I’m grateful for his offhand comment that motivated me to do something that I had always wanted to do but didn’t.

Now it’s his turn to get a license.