Anyway, Harold finally gets on the phone and you can tell immediately that he's uncomfortable. Why is that? Well, I have a few theories. Firstly, you only need one hand for the phone, so Harold doesn't know what to do with one of his hands. There are no dials or buttons or LED readouts to divide his attention, and it's hard for him to hear you well because he's distracted by the absence of QRN. Secondly, he's puzzled, not to say bewildered, that this fellow Ham is not calling him by HT through the local Repeater. Thirdly, he's anxious to get back to his Shack and resume his QSO or rag-chewing, which is to say, he just wants to be blissfully content again, so who can blame him?
As I write this, believe it or not, I still do not have an HT. Partly that is because of economic constraint (I have my eye on a fairly pricey little ICOM 3-bander; you probably know the one), but largely it is because I am a contrary old cuss. I got into Ham Radio to do real Ham Radio, which is to say high frequency (more on that later), and my top priority is to get up to 13 wpm and pass the General exam. I haven't got time right now to ride around in my vehicle telling other guys riding around in vehicles how good their signals are. But for this contrariness I pay a price.
If the local Hams are going to meet for coffee somewhere, the call to arms goes out by HT. And if the time of the monthly Club meeting/testing session is changed, people get told first (if not exclusively) by handitalkie. In short, Hams tend only to communicate by proper Ham Gear. And then there is the matter of being "talked in."
Newcomers and wannabes beware! If you decide to go to a Club meeting or maybe your first Hamfest (more about that later too), then be very wary about any directions to the place you are able to finally pry out of your friendly Ham.
Hams don't like giving directions, in the conventional sense. For many of them it is an atrophied skill. They want to "talk you in," you see. And so they Man (that's the word used) a Talk-In Station to direct you over the preferred route by radio, as though they were air traffic controllers guiding you in your airplane through the clouds in search of an elusive airfield. And for some reason it usually takes several Hams to accomplish this, all of them setting in or standing beside somebody's antenna-befestooned stretch pickup.
And so one comes to understand how utterly incredible it is that all the non-hams in the world ever get anywhere at all in their automobiles.
Despite this setback, I became interested in Ham Radio, and somehow procured a copy of the ARRL Handbook, which I tried with indifferent success to study. I wasn't able to quite fathom the workings of the superheterodyne, but I did get an idea of what a Ham does. He's a guy that makes calls from his Shack to other Hams in their Shacks in other States and other Countries. I aspired some day to join the ranks of these electronic romantics.
Later, a little older and with a new stepfather, I started working to save up $30 to buy a Heathkit short-wave receiver. But other interests not uncommon to mid-adolescence intruded and I never got the receiver.
I was also interested in Flying as a youngster (my real father having been a Pilot in WWII), and read many books on the subject, but I never learned to fly either.
Then three-plus excruciating decades swept by me, I know not how or why, and I awoke one afternoon like old Rip to find myself 49 years old, living at 2000 feet elevation on the Cumberland Plateau in middle Tennessee. Well, Hells Bells, I said to myself, and hied myself down to the local aerodrome. Got my private ticket at 50 and was instrument rated at 53. Flying is a wonderful hobby too.
Saving up for a 30-year-old Mooney (pronounced "Money"), though, has turned out to be like trying to save up for that $30 Heathkit forty years ago.
Late last year, meanwhile, a funny thing happened. In conjunction with my profession (I'm a Japanese patent translator), I began a more serious study of electronics, as in The Art of Electronics (Horowitz & Hill) serious, whereupon I started running into lots of cool radio stuff. And so I said, Hells Bells, why not?
So, here I am a Ham, my friends, KF4VXW (now KU4SZ), and instead of a 30-year-old Mooney 201, I own a 20-year-old Kenwood TS520.
On the way to getting licensed, I culled some Hams' names off the Internet and made some phone calls (see above). One of my first calls was to the president of a local Club, I'll call him Ralph. Ralph wasn't at home, so I left a message. Next day Ralph calls on the phone. Only he's not on the phone; he's in his Vehicle patching through to me on a local Repeater, and obviously tickled to death to be doing it. "Hi, Ken, this is Ralph (something) WB4-(something)," he says, and gives me the fascinating lowdown on his mobile Rig. He assures me that I'll be doing this too in no time. Then he tells me about another Ham up on the mountain close to me. "Bob (something) KE4-(something). Give him a call."
So I call Bob KE4-(something), and he's very helpful, and excited about a new Repeater his Club is setting up, and I think, cool. And during the course of this lively conversation (being a pretty new Ham himself, Bob is still comparatively relaxed on the telephone), I suggest that I might drop by and check out his Shack, which elicits a rather long lull on his end. Bob recovers, though, and explains that he mostly sits around his living room with his HT, which elicits a longish lull on my end. (Later I will run into Bob KE4-(something) in a restaurant and learn that, though a Tech+ for months now, he's never yet made an HF contact.) And that's okay, I guess. DSFDF and to each his own and variety is the spice of life amen.
But it soon becomes a kind of refrain: "Yeah, bud. I'm a Ham... (followed by call sign, followed by call sign in phonetic alphabet). But I don't do much on high frequency." I see.
For my money, you might just as convincingly be saying: "Aye, mate. I'm a Sailor, see. But I don't do much outside the harbor."
Call me a purist. Call me a Neanderthal. (Some of you will call me worse.)
On the other hand, though, this all sets me to wondering. I mean, what if this...this phenomenon should happen to Me?
Like I said in my earlier piece (see above), I have my heart set on that nifty little Icom three-bander, the IC-T8A. I plan to buy it next week, in fact, and start learning how to work it. I'm actually pretty excited about it, now that I've got the money set aside. And I'll probably be able to do nifty Ham stuff riding around the Cumberland Plateau in my Vehicle. But is this little concoction of silicon, copper, and cured resins going to turn me into another glorified CBer?
Heavens to Betsy to Mergatroid, I surely do hope not. But the fat is practically in the fire now. And you might want to check this site a few weeks from now to learn of my fate.
Who knows? Maybe you VHF and UHF enthusiasts will have the last laugh, and find me a few months from now hawking my dusty old Kenwood TS520 at some Hamfest, having become a walking talking squawking silent key for all the world to hear within my line of sight.
Let me draw a comparison between Hams and Pilots. (Of necessity here I will be speaking in Generalities. Naturally there are exceptions.)
There are some common traits, and I've already met a lot of hams who do or did do aviation. Pilots and Hams tend to be technically oriented. Their hobbies involve very sophisticated gear. They have to pass exams administered by a big federal bureaucracy. They have to command a rudimentary geophysical knowledge of latitudes and longitudes, great circles, and the fickleness of the troposphere. They keep logs. And their remarks are unintelligible to mere mortals.
I started also to list a Love of Freedom as a common trait. I know that most Hams cherish freedom too. But Pilots REALLY love freedom--freedom from the constraints of gravity, from the constraints of roads and stop signs, from the oppression of inversion-trapped atmospheric gunk, and from the constraints (not to say oppressions) of the big federal bureaucracy.
Pilots also have to be Brave and Courageous (although not necessarily Bold: One of the first things a student pilot is taught is that there are Old Pilots and Bold Pilots but No Old Bold Pilots). Aviators have to defy death every time they take to the air. Gravity is most unforgiving: it never ever gives an inch or an ounce. And, whereas maybe 1 in 10,000 Hams routinely electrocute themselves or do cartwheels off their 200-foot towers, the proportion of Pilots whose final "landing" coincides with the termination of their mortal experience is probably more on the order of 1 in 50. Shocking.
Getting more to the point, Pilots tend to be a tough-talking, swaggering, highly competitive, and, I must admit, rather egotistical lot. And the obeisance paid to the Pecking Order (who's got more hours, more ratings, the niftier aeroplane, or WAR experience) would do justice to the Scarsdale Tuesday Duplicate Bridge Luncheon. Fools are not suffered gladly.
So what does all this boil down to?
Just this: There are no Elmers in aviation, only Mentors.
And, in fact, the Elmer tradition and institution to me epitomize what is so very laudable in Ham Radio. It is the impulse to help out, to encourage, to teach by showing, to forego one's own Almighty Pursuit of Happiness in deference to a little happiness for someone else. (These impulses are not conspicuous hallmarks of the Pilot population.)
Older Hams tell me that it ain't like it used to be (and what is, I wonder?), that just being a Ham used to mean a fellow could be trusted, that the language and topics heard on the air used to be more edifying, that the QSL rate (about which more at a later date) was upwards of 90%, and so forth and so on.
Probably all sadly true. But, assuming that's so, might not these trends merely mirror the Great General Decline, and not be endemic to Ham Radio per se?
At any rate, coming fresh from Aviation (I got my private ticket 5 years ago and instrument rating 2 years ago), the congeniality of the Ham community has been a very pleasant surprise. Let me be specific.
W0ABC saw a plea for help on the Internet and called me long distance to give advice and encouragement. (He also told me about qsl.net.) W4SFF, whom I bought the Kenwood TS520 from, fixed it at cost when I smoked the finals (and said "Welcome to ham radio!"). And AF4JJ, our local antenna man, whom I had never met, showed up one Saturday afternoon brandishing hunting bow and golf-ball-tipped arrow, No. 14 wire, coils of coax and nylon rope, and two SWR meters, and spent hours rigging an 80-meter dipole for me. "My pay," he said as he was departing in his antenna befestooned van, "is that you help somebody else."
You gotta like that.
And so I wish here, in this modest forum, to thank and to honor all my elder brother Hams who have helped me and thousands like me get started in this really wonderful hobby.
Being of an impatient nature (when it comes to new toys, at any rate), and knowing that I'd have to charge the rechargeable batteries overnight before I could use the radio, I went ahead and sprung for the battery pack so I could get on the air on the drive home. Radio Man praised the standard-equipment rubber duck to the blue yonder so I thought I'd get by without a proper rooftop antenna at first. (Well, you can do it with a cell phone, reason I, so why not with an HT?) Live and learn.
Anyway, a few blocks from the Point of Purchase I stopped at a convenience store and, remembering that I had no cash on me, purchased an eight-pack of AAs with my Amex card. Back in my vehicle, I quickly loaded the AAs in the battery pack, snapped the pack into the rig, and pushed off into the traffic. It did cross my mind that three (that's 3) AAs produce only 4.5 volts when fresh, but who was I to argue with the geniuses who design ICOM radios?
I heard some guys talking on the repeaters on my drive back up the mountain, but couldn't contact any of them. At home, at 1800 feet elevation, I could hear chatter on other local repeaters, but couldn't "get in" any of them. I called AF4JJ, my trusty Antenna Man, and we did some tests, and he said I had a problem. So the next morning I called Radio Man back in Chattanooga and he said I had a problem and to bring it on in. So I did.
At his shop, Radio Man fed my signal into his $30,000 superanalyzer, and immediately saw I was putting out only 1 watt. Then his assistant pointed out that I was using the battery pack. Well shucks, that's your problem, said he. His assistant agreed with this verdict, explaining (24 hours after I'd paid her $35 for the dadgum battery pack) that "voltage is everything." Indeed.
So I drove back up the mountain (it's only an hour's drive), and charged my rechargeable battery, and the next morning I was on the air. I fixed the battery pack too. It wasn't easy, either, because I'm not a handyman. And it isn't real real pretty, but by golly it works.
What did I do? I cut, scraped, and ground all the plastic and steel guts out of it (the stuff that fits around and connects between the AAs), then deepened the receptacle with Dremel tool, extra plastic, and Superglue, and wired in two 9-volt battery connectors, in parallel. It's a tight fit for two smoke alarm batteries, but it works just fine. I also wired in a couple of posts so I can run the rig on a 12-volt lantern battery. A miniature DPDT switch inside for either internal OR external batteries would have added an elegant touch, but my skills and patience weren't up to it. I even thought of a switch to change from parallel to series to get the last kick out of partially depleted batteries, but that would really be overreaching. Know thy limits, son.
So now I know a thing or two about offsetting frequencies, audible tones, autopatches, picket fencing, and voltage. And I carry the damn thing with me everywhere. Everywhere!
A retired electrical engineer friend asked me why I wear this radio in church. I had no idea. But I hate going anywhere without it. I feel out of touch and naked without my little T8. Like Mr. Earp without his Colt 44. With it, I'm ready for anything. And I can't wait to encounter an emergency. Boy oh boy, won't that be something?
Well, we did have an emergency of sorts. Our favorite restaurant turned out to be closed (as in out of business) one Sunday night. Not to worry, we drive a couple of miles to the local Chinese restaurant. Also closed. Not to worry, I contact a local Ham on the local Repeater and, whamo, in a few minutes we're dining regally at a steakhouse I'd forgotten about. In a Jam? Call a Ham!
I do in all sincerity love the autopatch feature, even though our local
mountain calling area would only accommodate a couple of large chicken
farms. It's particularly handy for contacting my XYL. Not,
however, for calling my XYL-in-Law. I tried once. Unfamiliar
with duplex operations, she went into a sort of verbal fibrillation shouting
HelloHelloHelloHelloHelloHello...." What you might call a one-woman
pileup. Then she hung up before ever letting me transmit.
But with 4.5 Watts into my AF4JJ J-Pole I can get into the 145.350 repeater on Lookout Mountain right smartly and converse with my Brothers of the Airwaves in North Georgia, over a distance approaching 100 miles. And I can usually hit one of the valley machines in the other direction (i.e. NW) and get hold of Antenna Man. Best of all, though, wearing my little T8 on my belt, I no longer feel conspicuous at Hamfests.
[July 1, 1998]