The Amateur Amateur: That Was the Year That Was

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
January 2014

2014 has arrived and many folks have made new year's resolutions. For Amateur Radio operators these might include, “I'm going to upgrade my license this year” or “It's about time I checked my antenna connections”. I was wondering what I might resolve to do when it occurred to me that I wasn't sure what I'd done last year. So I dusted off my logs and notes, looked at the pictures I took during the year and came up with the following account.

collapsed mast

My main mast and most of my antennas.. grounded

During the early part of 2013 I messed around with digital modes a lot, primarily in an effort to figure out what would be most useful to our ARES group (Amateur Radio Emergency Service). I experimented with the NBEMS (Narrow Band Emergency Messaging System) family of programs, mostly looking for something that we could use to send binary files at high speed. I tried the FLARQ file transfer program, but the only way to get a decent transfer rate was to use MT63 mode. That program/mode combination just kept flarq-ing up and I never could get it to work.

Craig Hirsh, K0CMH suggested that I try WinDRM. I did, and it looked promising, but I kept running into technical difficulties. Then I had one of those magical moments. Do you know what I'm talking about? It's when the Ham Fairy suddenly bops you gently on the noggin with her wand and a miracle happens.

Frustrated with my lack of progress getting WinDRM to work, I turned on my 1.25 meter radio (220 MHz) to relax. I never hear anything on that band, but I like to get on and occasionally throw out my call sign just the same. I dialed in the only repeater that my rig could reach, keyed up my microphone, and said, “KB0H monitoring”.

That's when the miracle happened. Mel Whitten, K0PFX answered. And as I was about to discover, he's the fellow who wrote the instruction manual for WinDRM. Talk about hitting the jackpot! Mel quickly straightened me out and I was soon burning the air with high speed data transfers.

That was one of my better ham experiences of the year.

One of my worst, however, was when a severe storm wrenched my main antenna mast off of the roof of my house. Too much weight and height, no guy wires, and I paid the price. I even had to get the roof fixed. I was off the air for a while, but slowly rebuilt my antenna farm, lower and lighter this time.

If you'd like to read the gory details, the full story can be found in my columns Mastless in Missouri and Reseeding the Antenna Farm.

The Amateur Amateur business card

The Amateur Amateur business card

Another painful moment for me was when the ARRL decided to drop my column from its Web site. I'd had a fruitful relationship with the League for twelve years, so it came as both a shock and a disappointment. I have, obviously, set up this Web site to continue the column, but I fear that most of the folks who read my exploits (foibles?) on the ARRL site don't know that I'm still writing nor where to find me. Would it be gauche of me to take out an advertisement in QST?

2013 was also going to be the year that I finally got serious about the HF bands. (Actually, I get serious about HF just about every other year.) I had not one, but two HF rigs. Both were coated with dust, which showed how much I used them.

My first HF related task was to get connected to LoTW (ARRL's Logbook of The World) so that I could “officially” log my contacts. That in itself turned out to be a challenge. There was a lot more to it than just downloading and installing software. The certification process baffled me for a while (still baffles me to a degree), but I eventually got through it. Once I'd accomplished that I went through my contact log (a 3-ring binder with assorted papers jammed into it) and copied my contacts into LoTW. There were pitifully few of them.

Gary and SG-230

The SG-230 before it got soaked

I never managed to get any further with my HF efforts, though, because, as I mentioned earlier, my main mast came crashing down. My HF antenna was a wire dipole arranged in a squiggly pattern all over my roof (that's the best I could manage). I tuned it using a SG-230 antenna coupler. During my downed-mast salvage operation I found that the SG-230 box had been compromised (it was full of water). I sent it back to SGC for analysis and they told me it wasn't repairable. Not being able to afford a new SG-230, or any other decent HF antenna, I've been without HF capabilities ever since.

I already mentioned that I'd been wrangling our local ARES group's digital efforts for some time, and not really making much headway. Steve Wooten, KC0QMU is our ARES EC (Emergency Coordinator). He wanted to see more Winlink 2000 RMS stations (Remote Mail Server) in the St. Louis area. He also expressed a desire to see an ARES packet station running. I did start one up on Wednesday nights when our other ARES nets operated, but I only kept it up for about an hour. Steve asked if we could keep one running continuously.

I thought about it. I did have the computer power, a spare antenna, TNC, and transceiver. I wasn't sure whether to set up a Winlink RMS or a packet station. I vacillated back and forth, unable to decide. Then, as if in answer to my prayers, Peter Brisbine, N0MTH appeared and took the whole ARES digital burden off of my shoulders. What a relief! I feel megabytes lighter.

My ARES field experiences in 2013 consisted of the soggiest Field Day I've ever encountered (see A Rainful Experience), and the coldest, windiest Simulated Emergency Test I've ever had to endure (no column about this... yet). And after many years with RACES and ARES, there was My First Deployment. Strangely, the deployment wasn't for either RACES or ARES. It was an impromptu call from the Red Cross.

Other amusing places I found myself included the rooftops of a hospital and the county health department to examine antenna issues. Unforgivably, I forgot to take a camera with me both times.

Steve and I also set up a table at a local CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) Safety Expo. We wanted to have an active radio on the table since the Expo was held on the night of our weekly ARES net, and we wanted the other attendees to be able to hear it. Getting a signal into and out of the building was almost impossible, though, until we laid out a looooong run of coaxial cable to a magnetic mount antenna, which we jammed onto the side of a metal file cabinet. That worked just fine.

Tone Alert box

Tone Alert box on the workbench.. Why doesn't it work?

I was actually able to build something in 2013. Jeff Young, KB3HF and Bill Grimsbo, N0PNP had designed an ARES tone alert system. The alert boxes themselves were kits, and members of our ARES group assembled a bunch with the helpful guidance of Jeff and Bill themselves (see I Think My Kit Is Missing a Piece). Despite the detailed instructions, complete with pictures, it took me forever to assemble my kit. And though I was eventually able to put it together, it didn't work. I spent many hours in my shack trying to figure out what I'd done wrong, and eventually had to turn it over to Jeff for analysis and repair. That's a sad commentary on my electronic skills (basically, I have none). I'm going to have to find some really simple kits to play around with. Really simple.

If you're a regular reader of this column you'll know that I am fond of APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System). I started with a Byonics tracking system to put in my car. That was easy, as the unit was already assembled and programmed. All I had to do was plug it in. Later I expanded my knowledge of APRS and got a home station working using the UI-View32 program. I used that for quite a long time, occasionally experimenting with AGWTracker, AGWUIDigi, and APRSICE.

In 2013, however, I did something I'd never done before. I always stick with software that's been around for a while so that I can tap into the experience of other users. Heck, if something doesn't work, I won't know how to fix it. I need to Google the problem and see what other people did to solve it. But this time I tried not just new software, but software that was still in beta testing! The program was YAAC (Yet Another APRS Client). I'll probably write a whole lot more about that in a later column, but I will warn you right now: Do not attempt to download maps for the entire world.

I guess it's appropriate to end this with a note about our ARES group's year end get-together. We had three hand held radios to give away as door prizes. The first two wound up going to people who weren't even hams (though their spouses were quite pleased). The third did go to a young fellow who had just gotten his license.

Just about everyone brought food of some sort. There was an unbelievable assortment of cookies. As a diabetic all I could do was stare at them and drool. Believe me, it was painful. But you can only torture a guy so much before he cracks. After the party, and this is the absolute truth, I rushed to the nearest grocery store and bought out their complete stock of sugar free cookies.

That was 2013. So, what do I plan to do in the coming year? Well, I'm thinking about getting back into HF........ again.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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