Here’s a remarkable birthday gift from sons Jon and Andy. It’s Bluetooth, it’s sturdy, and it’s a great gift! I love it!
Another birthday gift, this time from Jeff Tobin, KC3NJE. Jeff scored a vintage D-104 ham radio microphone like this one for himself some months ago and I’ve been crazy jealous. For my birthday and just before Hamvention, Jeff gifted me a D-104 of my very own! I was excited, humbled, and grateful for the magnificent gift.
View from my former front porch of the fireworks display, part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Week activities here in the Canton, Ohio area.
I’ve been doing this ham radio thing for about a year and a half now. I have a couple more observations to add to the blog post I wrote last year.
1. The amount of learning required to get started
is not massive. You can get started with
a relative minimum of technological knowledge and if that’s all you want, you
can do quite a bit. But…
If you want to get really good at it or learn the nitty, gritty
details of how and why things work, it’s a daunting task. I’ve said before that it’s a bottomless pit
of things to learn and from my perspective, it can be pretty overwhelming. Having said that, …
2. … established ham
operators are, for the most part, more than willing to share their knowledge
and experience if you just ask. If you
pop up on the air with a question, chances are pretty good that you can get an
answer or at the very least a clue about how to proceed. The experienced operators are a magnificent
resource if you’re stuck or just need an explanation of something you don’t understand.
3. If you make a
mistake and do something incorrectly, most hams are very forgiving. It’s likely that they’ve made a similar
mistake at one time and they don’t hold your boo-boos against you. I still dread screwing up, but at least there’s
no ridicule from it.
So far as I know. (Maybe
people are laughing and pointing at me on other channels.)
4. There’s a Young
Operators’ Net on Sunday and there’s an eleven-year-old young woman who runs the
net. She’s terrific and does a really
top-notch job of net control. Hearing
those young voices on the air leads me to believe that…
5. …ham radio is not
a dead hobby. Far from it, matter of
One of the things that surprised me when I finally dove into ham radio was that technology has advanced the amateur radio hobby into the 21st century. With at least three or four digital voice protocols and an untold number of digital data protocols, you can get a message through in any number of ways including the old standards like CW and SSB. There are orbiting digital satellites that ham operators can use. You can bounce a radio signal off the moon and back to Earth if you can figure out how to do that. You can even communicate with the astronauts on the International Space Station. If you’re willing to put in the time to study how to use these modes of communication, you can do it.
Literally, the sky’s the limit.
6. For we Hollywood types, there’s a working ham radio shack on the set of “Last Man Standing,” the TV show on Fox starring Tim Allen of “Home Improvement” fame. Every once in a while, I’m told that someone on set fires up the on-set radio and communicates with the rest of we mere mortal operators, though I’ve not had that pleasure yet.
7. You don’t have to be crazy rich to get started. Once you are licensed, a new, entry-level handheld digital radio can be had for Amazon points, if you have enough of ‘em. Even if you don’t, you can get in for less than $100 if you watch the sales. If you’re OK with used equipment, you can get in for about half that. If amateur radio interests you, cost need not be a barrier to entry.
8. Ham radio operators help during natural disasters. Here’s an excerpt of an NPR piece about how amateur radio stepped up to help Puerto Rico in 2017:
MCEVERS: How many messages have you relayed since the hurricane hit?
DOBER: Myself about a hundred.
MCEVERS: Oh, wow. And what’s – what are one or two that, you know, are you know you’re going to remember for a long time?
DOBER: Honestly, there was one woman who – she just broke down in tears when I told her. And she actually called me back five minutes later and she basically asked me, you just called me. And what you told me, I want to hear it again to make sure I heard it right.
MCEVERS: And what had you told her?
DOBER: I told her that, yes, I did call you five minutes ago. And the news I gave you is the news that your loved one is OK.
MCEVERS: And so she just had to hear it one more time?
DOBER: She had to hear it one more time, yes. And like I said, as soon as I told her – and it’s odd because you’re telling people – I mean, I was calling people in California, in Texas. And you’re telling them, hi, I’m from Pittsburgh, Pa., and I have news out of Arecibo for you or out of Puerto Rico. So for them it’s kind of like, what? You know, that’s not the way they’re expecting to get their news.
9. I’ll quote myself
from the original set of observations on this one:
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.
This remains true and still amazes me every time.
10. This isn’t an
observation, but a shout-out to Jeff, aka VE6DV, from Canada who’s just happens
to be moving this week. He is our weekly
net controller and runs the net superbly.
He’s all the things that’s right about amateur radio. He’s helpful, friendly and welcoming. And the net he runs has gained popularity
because of the way he does it. He
deserves public kudos so here they are.
11. One more shout-out, this time to Andrew Taylor, MW0MWZ, in the UK. He authors and maintains a software package which allows amateur radio operators to extend their reach from tens of miles to all the miles. His software makes worldwide communications easy to use. It’s free and he’s WAY more responsive to questions and answers than any professional tech support company. So thanks, Andy, for writing and maintaining Pi-Star. Well done!
Bottom line for me: I am thankful that my son, Jon (left), poked me in the eye about my license awhile back. Jon, don’t make the same mistake I did and wait 50 years to get your license. It’s a great hobby and really tests my technical expertise every time I sit down at the radio. (That’s other son, Andy in the background, circa mid ’90’s.)
If a person’s brain really IS a use-it-or-lose-it proposition as we age, this is a great way to exercise the ol’ noggin. Amateur radio is a great way to exercise your mind and help keep you sharp.
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.