After ten years I’m finally a real ham
Katy Sharko, N1JDD
This article is reprinted from the September 2002 issue of Worldradio.
For ten years I held an Advanced Class Amateur Radio license and never had an HF QSO. Now. for the first time, I’m on the air. The reason it took me so long to get started is because Amateur Radio is a daunting hobby to start without the help of others. It took that help and a personal crisis to get me going again.
I've had an attraction to Ham radio for most of my adult life. My father was a Ham, so I grew up with the sound of my father working his radio, During the Viet-Nam War we lived on an air force base in Okinawa. He helped GIs talk with their families back in the states.
Ten years ago I decided to get my Amateur Radio license. I bought a $25 short wave receiver at a flea market and spent hours listening to it. I studied and took courses and exams for about six months. Finally, with an Advanced Class license in hand, I was chomping at the bit to get a rig. I spent Saturdays in Ham radio stores trying to understand the different brands and models of transceivers, antennas, power supplies, Morse code keys, handy-talkies, and antenna tuners. It looked like a jumble of equipment. I wanted to just get on the air. No matter how many visits I made to the store and how many salesmen I talked with, I couldn’t really understand the difference between the different models. Finally, I went to a local hamfest and forked out $l00 for a tube transceiver and $25 for a G5RV wire antenna.
With the help of a friend I put up the antenna and hooked the rig together. The radio drifted badly, and I had problems receiving much of anything. Not too long after I brought it home, the transceiver stopped working. A couple of storms later, my antenna blew down. That was the end of my Ham radio career. That was the end, that is, until a few months ago.
Over the years my interest in Ham radio continued, even though I was inactive. I kept my license up-to-date, intending to make another attempt at the hobby some day.
In March of 2001 I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. During the next eight months I underwent chemotherapy and radiation. It seemed as though the terrible side effects would never end. They eventually did, though, I woke up one day towards the end of my treatments and found myself feeling wonderful and ready to re-enter the world again. During the year, I documented my cancer journey in an online journal. A fellow online journalist, Peter Wang, KF5ND, wrote about his Amateur Radio volunteer experiences in his journal. When I read his stories, I imagined him rushing up to some fallen runner and calling for an ambulance on his 2-Meter HT. It seemed like a really nice thing to do.
One day Peter Wang wrote a message in my journal: "How would you like it if some people from the Framingham Amateur Radio Association came to your house sometime and set up an antenna and radio?”
Through Peter I met a man named Bob Hess, W1RH, President of the Framingham Amateur Radio Association Bob explained that the club had some people with excellent antenna expertise and that they could help me get set up with a radio and antenna. I wasn't sure if Bob was for real or not, but decided to take a chance and pursue the purchase of equipment, After all, memories of my cancer diagnosis reminded me that life should be lived for today and not tomorrow,
My husband John and I decided to go to the Ham radio store, I remembered the store from years back. The equipment still confused me. Things hadn't changed one bit in that respect. We walked around the store not really knowing what we were looking at. The salesman showed us some transceivers, antennas, and antenna tuners, He gave us a lot of information to absorb. I asked him to show us the handy-talkies. "We'll take it," said John looking at one of the 2-meter handy-talkies. John looked at me.
"I don't know, Do we really want to spend the money?' I asked him, All of a sudden I had second thoughts about getting involved with Ham radio. The HT was $120. Did I really want to spend money on myself? What if I died? Would it be wise to spend a lot of money on Amateur Radio equipment and then kick the bucket? I might have a week left to live, or a year, or ten. These are the same questions I asked myself in the previous ten months whenever I was considering a purchase for myself Each time I decided not to spend the money.
"Of course we want to buy it!" John said. "We drove all the way here, and I'm not going to walk out without buying something!'
He convinced me, so we bought the HT. This was all I needed to get over my hesitation about spending money. With the help of two of John's co-workers, Pete Thompson, N3EVL, and Ellis Clark, KC1BC, Bob Hess, Peter Wang and www.eham.net, I decided on an Icom IC-718 for my HF rig. I bought the IC-718, a 250-Hz filter, a DSP board, an antenna tuner, power supply, and manual key. After bringing the equipment home, I put it on the dining room table and looked at it. How on earth did the antenna tuner attach to the rig? The key didn't have a cable to plug into the IC-718 either. This wasn't like buying
a computer where all of the cables you need are given to you.
"Well, if the Framingham Amateur Radio Association doesn't help me with putting all of this together, it's going to end up in the big Ham radio heaven where my gear from ten years ago went," I thought.
A week after purchasing the equipment, three people from the Framingham Amateur Radio Association appeared at my door -- Bob Hess, W1RH. Peter Simpson. KA1AXY, and Martin Bayes, AA1ON. . It was an unseasonably warm day for a New England January.
Pete Thompson told John earlier in the week that one of the basic characteristics of a Ham is that you do your antenna work in the middle of winter snowstorms, Oh well, we got the middle of the winter part right. The day was sunny. It didn't look like there would be a snowstorm anywhere in sight for a while.
Peter and Bob walked around the yard, looking at the trees, "Yup," Peter said, nodding, He rubbed his hands together. This is going to be fun !" he exclaimed, with a sparkle in his eye. He went to his car and came back with a plastic bucket, and a pile of wire. The wire was a G5RV antenna that the Framingham Amateur Radio Association was donating to me.
With Bob at one end of the wire and Peter at the other end, they walked around the yard measuring distances and angles. They decided upon a NW-SE orientation for the antenna. That meant putting one end in the trees in the back yard, the other end in a tree in the front yard, and crossing the antenna over the roof of the house. Its midpoint would hover just to the side of the back door.
"Now, how are we going to route it into the house?' Bob asked. I nodded in agreement. I looked up at him. He didn't look anything like I imagined when I talked with him on the phone. On the other hand, I supposed he didn't expect to see an almost-bald lady either.
Peter went down into the basement and walked around, opening doors and peering at the walls and ceiling. "How about if we route it through here? It should be fairly easy, and would just take a hole in the floor and one into the house from the outside," he said. I looked at John. He didn't seem fazed at the idea of having holes drilled in the house. "Great! No problem!” I said.
It took them the entire day to put up the antenna. At mid-day, we drove to Radio Shack for some miscellaneous items. Martin sat up front with me and told me about how he has talked with 331 out of 335 possible countries on multiple bands. He reminded me of brilliant engineers I've worked with over the years. When he spoke he had a way of being a natural teacher. Martin and Peter talked about PSK-31 and APRS. At RadioShack, with their help, I bought the "ingredients" needed for assembling the cables I needed to attach the key and antenna tuner to my rig. We were also able to buy a pre-made coax cable with PL-259 connectors for the antenna tuner Did the phone plug from the key into the rig have to be a monaural or stereo jack? I had no idea there was a difference in audio jacks. We bought one of each so we wouldn't have to make another trip back, I wondered how other people ever got started in the hobby if they didn’t have people like these to help them.
After we arrived back at my house we sat down for a quick bite of lunch. Martin picked up my ARRL's Wire Antenna Classics" book and pointed out an article on the G5RV written by its creator Louis Varney, G5RV. He explained that the G5RV is designed in such a way that it can receive signals on multiple bands. He showed me the diagrams in the article. They depicted the wave patterns as they travel through the antenna. The midpoint ladder line is a crucial element in the design of the antenna as well, which was interesting. The article also described how the bulk of the signals are carried in the middle part of the antenna, and not so much at the far ends.
After lunch Peter and Martin raised the antenna, they drilled holes and routed the feed line through the house to the spot we had selected for our Ham shack. Then we sat down with my IC-718 manual, a voltmeter, a wire stripper, and the two audio cables we bought. Martin pointed out the picture of the plug in the manual and decided we should use the stereo plug, Next we worked on wiring the cable onto the key.
"I say red and black wires" said Martin, "Me too," said Peter. I could tell these two had done this before. I stripped the wires and Peter and I used the voltmeter to figure out the proper wiring.
After we connected everything together, they showed me how to use the equipment, I was flabbergasted that these people could set up a Ham station with such apparent ease. And thanks to their tutorial, I didn't have much of a learning curve when I began to use the rig.
On a Saturday night a couple of weeks later, I put the transceiver and the two extra computer boards I had ordered and just received (a DSP board and a 250Hz filter) on the dining room table, As a software engineer I know about static safety, and I have a little experience using soldering irons. I figured I was about as qualified as anyone to install these boards myself. I went downstairs and dug out my ten-year-old $5 soldering iron.
The side of the iron was concave from use, and only one spot heated up. I had to hold it at odd angles in order for the heating element to make contact with the correct part. It was tricky holding the soldering iron at an angle and trying not to have it solder the other components on the board. Most of the other components were miniaturized, so I could barely see them. Doing the installation took hours of painstaking care. I prayed that I wasn't soldering the wrong parts. After I put the transceiver back together, I turned it on and crossed my fingers. Would it smoke? It didn't, I tested the new features for a couple of minutes. They appeared to work, so I went to bed.
I tossed and turned in bed for five or ten minutes and then decided I wasn't going to get any sleep unless I spent more time with the radio to make sure it was working, I went downstairs and spent the next hour or so turning the dials and trying different things. After finding a quiet frequency I keyed my microphone to tune the antenna. The SWR meter on the HF registered 0.5 and the antenna tuner needles didn't move. I turned the antenna tuner knobs and nothing happened, I tried the same thing on several other bands. Same thing. "Oh great thought." I hosed my transmitter with the soldering iron."
The next day I programmed two frequencies into the transceiver memory in preparation for my first QSO with Peter Wang, KF5ND. I was worried that the transmitter was busted and depressed that a second attempt at being a Ham was going to bite the dust once again.
At exactly 3:30 I heard a faint voice calling my call sign. Out of millions and millions of radio signals in the air, my transceiver had grabbed the one from Texas intended for me in Massachusetts! Our signals were weak, but we managed to hear each other enough to have a really nice exchange. I was pleased that I hadn't broken my transmitter after all. Later that week Ellis Clark, KC1BC, told John that the reason I had problems tuning was probably because I didn't have the transmitter in AM mode. When John told me this I slapped my forehead, remembering that Martin and Peter had used the AM mode when they showed me how to tune the antenna.
Peter Wang, KF5ND, and I talked for about ten to fifteen minutes and then began to say our goodbyes. Another amateur cut in, and said he wanted to talk to the "YL” (me). I wondered, a little apprehensively, what he wanted to talk with me about.
The person that cut in was Vern Kaspar, W9FAM, from Indiana. His signal was so clear to me that he seemed to be right next-door. I fantasized that he looked like a wizard, sitting in front of a monstrous station with a sea of knobs and commanding his voice to float through the air to my tiny Ham shack in Massachusetts. He played a recording of my own transmission back to me so that I could hear what I sounded like from his end. It was great fun to hear myself speaking over the air!
Some other Hams heard our exchange and came into our conversation to compliment him on his audio. While he was talking with them, he let me make contact with them as well. When people stopped breaking in, he called "CQ Europe. His signal was so strong that Many people flocked at his beck and call. By the end of about one and a half hours with him I had talked with Miguel, EA60C, in Spain, John Lush, VO1CJ, in Newfoundland, Ade, GOKSB, in the UK, Antonio Martins, CT1BC, in Portugal, Claus, OZ3ABU, in Denmark, Tony Wright, M3ADW, in England, and Les McCullough, GI4RMA, in Northern Ireland!
I was so amazed! It was as though this man that I didn't know anything about had taken my hand and traipsed around the world with me. It was an unbelievable experience,
Cancer is a horror, but it's also a gift. Two weeks after my first chemotherapy infusion I lost my hair. I looked in the trashcan and saw the innocence of my youth lying beside my fallen hair. A new person was born in me who was older and wiser. It would take until the end of the year for me to learn to accept and welcome this new me. When I walked out of my last radiation treatment on 2 January 2002, I looked up at the sky and breathed the fresh air as though for the first time. There's beauty in living and beauty in even the tiniest acts of kindness that people do for each other. Those acts do make a difference in this world. My oncology nurses, my radiation technicians, and now, back in the real world, these Amateur Radio operators roots in kindness and compassion. From a pile of hair in the trashcan to a journey around the world in one and a half hours
with a man I barely knew. I have grown to realize how incredible life can be, and what a joy it is to know people like these wonderful Amateur Radio operators who helped me accomplish a ten-year dream.
(You can visit Framingham Amateur Radio Association's web site at
GRUMMAN AMATEUR RADIO CLUB
MINUTES OF GENERAL MEETING – 9/18/02
By Tom, KC2HNN
The meeting was called to order by Pat at 5:40 P.M. All present introduced themselves.
Pete was absent and so no report was made.
Gordon reported on getting a new repeater. The GE rebuilt repeater is not likely to have spare parts available and his contact for getting used Motorola repeaters is difficult to reach, so Gordon has settled on the Hamtronics repeater which is new, has spare parts available, and whose company has a good service reputation. The unit will also use our existent amp. A few more details must be settled before ordering.
Five VEs were present and there were three amateur and two commercial applicants. Both commercial applicants passed, two Tech+s passed the General test and one applicant for Tech failed.
Sunday’s net had no net control so Tony from TN took over.
No activity reported.
Finances remain in good shape.
No house report was given so the featured speaker would have more time.
The guest speaker was Frank Fallon (N2FF), the director of the Hudson division of ARRL. His topics were: getting the Hudson division newsletter by email through the ARRL Web page; soliciting nominations for the awards dinner; the role hams play since 9/11, and; legislation pending on CCRs (which he called the biggest threat to amateur radio). In Questions and Answers, he addressed the role amateur radio still plays in an Internet world and the expected effectiveness of Congressman Israel’s CCR bill.