THE BIG SHACK
by Joe Tyburczy
(Originally published in WorldRadio Magazine)
Some rather odd quirks distinguish ham operators from the ordinary mass of folk, and this "shack" business is a perfect example. Never mind the strange beeping noises coming out of their headphones in the middle of the night. What kind of hobbyist proudly inhabits a "shack"? Why not call it a "studio" or a "laboratory" or something else with a bit more class? I dug around and found out some answers.
The designation has its roots in early Marconi experiments conducted from rickety wood-and-tarpaper shelters constructed on the deck of US Navy ships. Subsequent installations were more permanent affairs, yet still separated from the rest of the crew, usually on an upper deck just behind the bridge. The small metal enclosure came to be known as "the wireless shack" and later as "the radio shack". As any old salt knows, the first thing done in a naval battle was to lob a 12" shell into the enemy's radio shack in order to prevent calls for assistance. Little wonder that shipboard radio operators were typically high-strung and jittery young fellows.
When modern-day hams talk about their "shack" they usually refer to whatever space their hobby happens to be crammed into at the moment. Some are lucky enough to have a dedicated outbuilding separate from their living quarters. Others shoehorn a transceiver into the desk space between computer and telephone. Most are neither beggar nor king and fall somewhere in between the ideal and the make-do. I have seen hamshacks in kitchens, bedrooms, basements, tool-sheds, porches, garage-corners, broom closets, attics, lean-to's, teepees, and even one in a rusting bread truck.
Hams and their shacks may be ingenious and diverse, but they all have one thing in common: dreams of something bigger and better. And therein lies a tale.
My pal George harbored such expansive ambitions ever since I'd known him, maybe because his inalienable right to radio real estate had historically been trampled on and abused. As a teenager, his parents barely tolerated the beeps and buzzes of his late night DX through adjoining bedroom walls. As a young married, his ham equipment was forced to share a bureau with diapers and baby formula. As a journeyman software engineer, he pursued stolen moments in hotel rooms with a tiny QRP rig. At home, he could hardly complete a QSO without one or more of his kids using his lap as a trampoline. Disenfranchised but not disillusioned, visions of his very own radio sanctuary burned brightly in George's brain. "Someday" he promised me, "I'm gonna have my own radio room. You wait and see. It's gonna be...THE BIG SHACK."
He had coined a phrase and it stuck. From then on THE BIG SHACK was his obsession, his holy quest, the elusive White Whale to which he played a willing Ahab. It's probably what drove him to make an offer on the old house on the banks of the Saugus River. Slightly worn around the edges, it was what is euphemistically referred to in the New England states a "fixer-upper", meaning, it offered four walls, a roof, and floors, but little else. The main attraction for George was what stood directly behind it: a dilapidated garage with an upper loft that, when viewed with a certain amount of imagination might appear tailor-made for ham Valhalla. Inside it, beams sagged, floors tilted, and foundation creaked. The little building appeared to slump dejectedly in the direction of the nearby riverbank, as if undecided whether to remain standing or end its misery and leap off. But, where others might have seen a potential disaster, George saw his chance to have...THE BIG SHACK.
Once the initial fixup on the house was done, he concentrated his efforts on the garage. More accurately, he concentrated on filling the upper story of the garage with radio gear. Soon, even the family cars were banished to the driveway and all available space became one vast radio console. Multiple levels quickly filled with exotic transceivers and accessories. Shelves sagged with a phalanx of ancient boatanchor gear. Everywhere you looked there were meters, amplifiers, keyers, speakers, switches, lights, and knobs. Gear piled on top of gear as George haunted the dark corners of Internet auction sites in search of the rigs he'd lusted after as a Novice, as well as anything else that caught his fancy. He added plush chairs, couches, a snack bar, a pool table, and a shower to the arrangement. Nothing was too good for the BIG SHACK. Crowning the heap of electronics was his pride and joy, a Heathkit DX-100 transmitter. The 85-pound slab of Eisenhower-era iron was the same model that, as a teen, he plaintively pounded out scores of unanswered midnight CQ's on. Now it was back, and this time things were going to be different. Beverage antennas wove their way through surrounding foliage. A triband beam soared defiantly from a tower. Multiband verticals sprouted from the roofline like porcupine quills. Yes, George had finally achieved his dream...THE BIG SHACK.
But, as fate would have it, the final chapter of the story had yet to be written, because shortly after the last piece of gear was loaded in, it began to rain. This was no ordinary rain. It was the kind that came once every 100 years in New England. Every stream, gully and creek in the entire state of Massachusetts swelled to Biblical proportions as the downpour continued unabated for days on end. The Saugus river became engorged and rose from its banks to creep the short distance up to George's garage-shack, threatening it like a siege army.
Within hours, the structure was almost half-submerged, a virtual island. Luckily the main house was on higher ground and firmly anchored to its foundation. Not so with the shack. George watched helplessly from his kitchen window as his pride and joy was systematically battered by the swirling currents.
With a sudden, tearing, groaning sound, the shack shuddered momentarily and shifted, creeping forward. It was moving...slowly... in the direction of the river! Hurling his wife and children aside, George ran out into the pelting rain. Desperately, he thrashed knee-deep in muddy water toward the shack, screaming, as if to stem the tide of the inevitable.
"NooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! NOT THE BIIIIG SHAAAAACK!!!"
Before he could get a dozen yards, it happened. VROOOOOSH!!! A huge wall of water rose, and with a single, powerful thrust, uprooted the shack from its foundation. KRUUUNNCH!!! Timbers crackling, it slid smoothly off the bank and into the river, landing with a rumbling KA-WHOOOM!!! A tall geyser of water exploded high in the air. When it subsided, the shack bobbed to the surface and sped swiftly away from the bank.
In that brief moment, George stood paralyzed, wet hair plastered to his skull, unable to comprehend the horror. Then, all at once he realized the bitter truth: everything he'd worked for was gone. All the finest gear, all the best antennas, his prized vintage DX-100. This and thousands of hours of effort was wiped away in an instant. He had scrabbled hard and finally attained the very zenith of ham radio nirvana, only to be cruelly struck down by the forces of nature!
A chilling, primordial howl of anguish arose from the depths of George's soul.
In mid-river, the waterlogged shack began a slow pirouette, as if gesturing a last farewell. And then was gone, carried off by the raging floodwaters, antennas and all. The Coast Guard later reported the structure had broken up and sank somewhere near Ipswitch on its way to the sea.
Yes indeed, hams have some strange quirks. But, as I discovered, chief on the list is that they never give up. If you visit George today, you will notice his modest setup: a single transceiver sits complacently on the desk next to his PC. Attached to it is a rather low-slung dipole hidden among the weeds in the backyard. But if you don't look carefully you could miss the gleam in his eye as he gazes at the empty spot behind the house. I can't say for certain, but I'd be willing to bet that he's planning, scheming, and dreaming once again of...THE BIG SHACK.