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Hamming it up could be a necessity some day

Jo Sweet, Community Voices • Mar 29, 2020 at 8:00 AM

About 65 years ago, when I was 12-13 years old, I was walking through my church’s parking lot and spotted a car with a very prominent antenna mounted to the rear bumper. I peered through the windshield and noted a radio mounted under the dashboard with a microphone attached.

In 1955 there was no CB radio and certainly no cell phones. Even making a long-distance phone call, long distance generally meaning out of the county, involved going through operators and paying a significant toll. I was impressed that the owner of that vehicle could be sitting in his car and talking with someone very far away without paying anything.

I found the owner, a middle-aged man, who kindly explained that was an amateur, or “ham” radio, and he offered to help me obtain the Federal Communications Commission license required to operate my own radio. The prospect of being able to communicate over long distances without charge excited me. I obtained a study manual and began studying along with two neighborhood buddies how to pass the written FCC exam. Also required was the ability to send and receive Morse code at five words per minute. I bought a tape with Morse code instructional recordings and began practicing with one of my friends in copying the code from the tape.

I was thrilled when I passed both the written test and the code sending-and-receiving test and was issued an FCC call sign and license. I assembled a receiver from a kit marketed by Heathkit, and my mentor provided me with an old military surplus transmitter capable of transmitting on a single frequency with 15 watts power. My antenna was a strand of long wire run from my bedroom window. I could transmit only with code and the frequency and power I was using limited me to a range of around 250 miles in making contacts. I spent many of my youthful hours sitting at that radio trying to contact other hams in as many states as possible and swapping post cards (QSLs) with them as proof of our contact.

Over many subsequent years I advanced far beyond that primitive station. With a more powerful transmitter, a better receiver, and a beam antenna I could chat by voice or code all around the world. The conversations ranged from brief chats to extended conversations covering many topics. My involvement in the hobby extended to multiple family members including my wife, two sisters, a brother-in-law and two nephews. Most of us had a radio in our cars, which was quite useful in traveling.

Perhaps all that sounds like ancient history. In many ways it is, given the technical advancements since then. We are now living with cell phones in our pockets, fast communication anywhere in the country for a fixed monthly charge, satellite TV and radio from throughout the world, and face-to-face chats with anyone with our smart phones. Amateur radio has advanced as well, with use of satellites to relay conversations, digital modes that allow communication with very low power, television, and reliable communication with radios the size of a cell phone from remote areas not covered by cell phone towers. Computers have captured the minds of today’s young techno dweebs as was mine by radio many years ago. Gatherings of ham operators now are largely old guys around my age.

So why this article in today’s world of high tech communication? It has struck me this week how easily our technology centered society can suddenly be disrupted by unexpected events. Food shelves and sanitary supplies, such as toilet paper, are being stripped clean in panic buying. Suppose our communications system with cell phones and landline phones and the internet were to be disrupted by an enemy’s cyberattack? Even a hurricane or tornado can be very disruptive to communication. With a battery or solar-powered low-power transmitter/receiver vital communication can be accomplished. In a less-threatening scenario, hikers can communicate from the trail in many spots where cell phone coverage is nonexistent.

Obtaining an FCC license has never been easier. Knowledge of Morse code is not required now. Local amateur radio clubs will assist you in obtaining the technical and regulatory requirement knowledge required to pass the FCC test and acquire your license.

If you are a hiker going to remote locations, a small transceiver frequently can allow you to talk to the outside world from locations not possible with a cell phone. You can enjoy chatting with folks around the country and world, and perhaps be prepared for a sudden unexpected communications loss.

If any of this interests you, consider obtaining your own personal license and station. Amateur radio is very stimulating, enjoyable, practical in various situations, and possibly even crucial in some future day.

Jo Sweet of Johnson City is a semi-retired internal medicine physician who served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps.

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