The Amateur Amateur

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The Amateur Amateur is a column about my experiences in ham radio. Since I have little technical expertise and not much knowledge of electronics, I make a lot of mistakes. I consider myself to be just an amateur amateur radio operator, but I keep pressing on and trying new things. This column details my triumphs - and foibles - and I try not to take myself too seriously. Whether you are an experienced ham or new to the hobby, I hope you find these chronicles of my efforts to be entertaining.

Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

September 2016

The Amateur Amateur: AES

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

It was with shock and sadness that I heard about the closing of Amateur Electronic Supply chain of stores. Not only was it my primary source of Amateur Radio equipment, I had fond memories of visiting the store in Milwaukee several years ago. Here is a column that I wrote about that experience, but never published.

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Amateur Electronic Supply

Amateur Electronic Supply - Milwaukee

The very first QST magazine that I received featured an article about a group of hams who had made an adventurous trip to an uninhabited island in order to set up and operate Amateur Radio stations for a few days. They braved treacherous reefs, uncooperative weather, scorpions and many other hardships just to provide other hams with a rare grid square.

It made for exciting reading. Since then I've read about a number of such DXpeditions. They all sound like real Indiana Jones stuff, and I've often wondered, is that something I would ever do?

Sadly, the answer is no. Besides not being fit enough, I don't possess the requisite skills or knowledge to be a member of such an undertaking. I can daydream about it, but I know that there will never be an invitation in my mailbox asking if I'd like to join a team of ham commandos preparing a radio assault on some obscure part of the globe.

More realistically, I've thought about attending the Hamvention in Dayton, Ohio. That, too, would be an adventurous trip. But so far there has always been a scheduling conflict, some pressing matter that has kept me from going. So, it remains on my list of places-I'd-like-to-go. Someday, RSN (Real Soon Now).

Those destinations ran through my head recently when my wife Nancy asked where we could go on vacation. The Dayton Hamvention was already over and a DXpedition was out of the question, of course, but I wondered if there was some other ham-oriented place we could visit. There is no "Ham World" (that I know of), but there are places that have at least some Amateur-Radio-related attraction where I could poke around for an hour or two.

"Milwaukee," I replied without thinking.

"Why?" Nancy asked.

"Um, because Amateur Electronic Supply has a store there?" I said feebly.

Nancy gave me a neutral stare for a moment, and then said, "Okay."

And so, for no other reason than that I had happened to have seen an AES catalog sitting on my desk a few minutes earlier, we made plans to vacation in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee was a great place to visit. We stayed downtown, practically on top of the Riverwalk (which I highly recommend). We also spent some time touring other parts of Wisconsin, most notably the peninsula north of Milwaukee. It was absolutely beautiful.

But, of course, this is a column about Amateur Radio, so I'll get right to the part where we visited AES.

Amateur Electronic Supply

Amateur Electronic Supply - Milwaukee

The bad news was that there was, inevitably, a lot of road construction between our hotel and AES. The good news was that there was a Schlotzsky's sandwich shop nearby. We used to have Schlotzsky's in St. Louis some years ago. The stores were here long enough to get everyone addicted to their sandwiches, then folded up shop and left the area. Ever since then, Nancy and I always check our vacation destinations to see if they have a Schlotzsky's.

Once we got past the road construction, Amateur Electronic Supply was pretty easy to spot, having quite an antenna farm on its roof. We parked, went inside, and my eyes went wide. (Picture Homer Simpson murmuring, "Doooo-nuts". Now picture me saying, "Raaa-dee-ooos".)

Yes, I've been to a couple of stores that have sold Amateur Radio equipment. Generally, though, they were either tiny or ham radio was just a sideline. This was the first time I'd been in a store of any notable size that was almost exclusively dedicated to ham-radio-related stuff. I was like a kid in a candy store.

I wandered up and down the aisles, drinking it all in. They had radios. They had antennas. They had mysterious gizmos that only the most fanatical hams would understand. It was wonderful. I wanted to buy everything, even things that I already owned. I just gawked and gawked.

Eventually I made my way to one of the salesmen. He smiled and politely ignored my drool, which was pooling on the countertop in front of him.

Okay, there's no easy way to say it. I went nuts.

"Hi. I write an Amateur Radio column," I said. "Can I go back and take pictures of your warehouse?"

In most places, the salesman would have pressed a hidden button and burly security guards would have suddenly appeared. In a few stores, the salesman might have actually shot me. But this salesman kept his smile firmly in place and said, "Let me just check with the sales manager."

A few minutes later Ray Grenier, K9HKW appeared. He, too, was smiling.

By this time my exuberance had waned some, and I was beginning to grasp that I'd made myself look like a fool, and had put the sales force in an awkward position. I tried to look contrite as Ray explained that, for security and safety reasons, he couldn't just let me wander around the warehouse taking pictures.

While I was nodding and wondering what on earth had possessed me to think I was a reporter from 60 Minutes, Ray asked if I had a business card.

As it happened, I had some business cards from our ARES® group that identified me as an Assistant Emergency Coordinator. I gave one to Ray.

He looked at it for a minute, and then looked up at Nancy.

I didn't see what Nancy did, but I suspect that she gave Ray one of those shrugs that conveys the message, "I know, but what can I say? He's harmless."

Amateur Electronic Supply

Amateur Electronic Supply - Milwaukee

Or maybe Ray just figured that if my wife was that attractive I couldn't be quite as stupid as I seemed. But whatever the reason, Ray said he'd take us on a tour of the place.

The first stop was a cubbyhole where Greg, K9XBX was struggling to put together the upcoming catalog. Greg gave us a smile and a wave, then went back to ponder his catalog puzzle. I've seen the catalog, so I know that putting it together must be a monumental task.

Ray did take us back into the warehouse. Actually, it was a combination of warehouse, workshop, and once a year, the site of a hamfest. Ray was very proud of the SuperFest, which is held in April. He told us that vendors set up in the back room, and that over a couple of days they can expect around 1800 visitors. Super indeed!

There was a lot to see, but what I remember the most was that there was the repair shop. That may not mean much to you folks who live in very large cities, but those of us who don't are always asking, "Short of sending it back to Japan, where can I get my radio fixed?"

Well, now I have an answer!

I suspect that Nancy's most memorable moment was meeting Sandy the Sales Dog (K9WOOF). Yes, the golden retriever shown on AES's Milwaukee Web site really does exist. (I think that Sandy's role is to play "fetch" with you until you're in a good enough mood to pull out your wallet and buy something really expensive.)

Back out in the sales area Ray, W9KHH; Jeff, N9EDQ; and Gary, KA9YTB manned both the counters and the phones. They were a friendly bunch, and gave us suggestions on places to visit while we were in Wisconsin and directions how to get there. I kind of regret that the only thing I bought was the ARRL repeater guide (the one with the extra large print for guys like me who refuse to get reading glasses of the proper strength).

Despite my social faux pas at the beginning, it was a very pleasant visit. As we were leaving Nancy spotted what had to be the largest modern Amateur Radio transceiver I've ever seen. It was probably a Yaesu FT-10000000 or something like that and was obviously intended for super-serious DXers.

One of the salesman asked Nancy if she'd like to buy it.

"Will it fit in my luggage?" she asked.

"No, but there's an optional trailer-hitch attachment so that you can tow it," he replied.

We grinned, said goodbye, and then went out to see if we could find that Schlotsky's.


© 2016 Gary Ross Hoffman
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