The Amateur Amateur: Motrin and Meatballs

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
February 2014

I usually attend at least two hamfests every year, but not as a peruser of fine junk. I'm also not exactly a vendor. What I do is help man the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) tables. The person who manages all of this is our Emergency Coordinator (EC) Steve Wooten, KC0QMU.

The Show Must Go On

artistic table layout

Best artistic display of a table

Winterfest, the largest hamfest in the St. Louis area, was rapidly approaching. At a few prior hamfests Steve hadn't been able to stay for the duration and had asked me to take over. No problem. For this Winterfest, however, Steve couldn't make it at all. He needed me to not only man the ARES tables, but also to set them up and tear them down.

Ah. That was a bit different. For one thing I'd have to go to Steve's house and pick up all of the items that he wanted to sell or display. He usually transported everything to hamfests in the ARES trailer. I had no way to tow it, though, and wasn't sure that I could cram all of the stuff into my SUV. Most of it was stored in convenient containers, but they were bloody heavy.

Well, this was Winterfest. I couldn't say no. The show must go on.

The hamfest was going to be held on a Saturday, so I arranged to get everything from Steve on the preceeding Friday afternoon. The hamfest operators (the St. Louis and Suburban Radio Club) said that vendors could come in and set up on Friday if they wished, and I definitely did wish. I haven't been an early bird since I retired, so getting out of bed well before sunrise was going to be difficult enough for me. I didn't relish the idea of getting up even earlier, driving over to Collinsville, Illinois where the hamfest was going to be held, and then spending an extra hour getting everything set up. There was no way that I would be a smiling, charming ARES representative when the doors opened to the public. I'd be a grumpy, red-eyed old codger who had passed out and was lying under the table snoring. So I opted to drive directly to the Gateway Conference Center in Collinsville as soon as Steve and I had jammed everything into my SUV.

I took a secret weapon along with me... my wife Nancy, N0NJ. She wasn't particularly keen on the idea, but she, too, knew that the show must go on.

Best in Show

That turned out to be the right thing to do (at least from my perspective, if not Nancy's). For one thing, during daylight hours it was easy to see and avoid the ice patches in the parking lot, remnants of snowstorms earlier in the year. In the pre-dawn darkness of Saturday morning, however, I would only have discovered them by having my feet suddenly go out from underneath me and fracturing a couple of vertebrae. That would have definitely put me in a grumpy mood.

Another plus was that I was able to check in and go right to my assigned tables. I knew from experience that there would be a huge pileup of vendors waiting to check in on Saturday morning. That happened every year.

The biggest plus, however, was Nancy presence. Having two people set up the tables made everything much easier, of course, but Nancy is also an artist (literally and professionally). She made the table containing promotional material look fantastic. Several people commented the next day about how great the table looked.

Nancy and I got everything put together and nicely arranged in record time.

Musical Chairs

blinking light

The obligatory flashing light

The next morning I drove over to Collinsville, flashed my vendor wristband at the Conference Center door, and headed for the ARES tables. Everything was as Nancy and I had left it, but whoa! There were no chairs!

I went over to the hamfest control center and complained to an official.

“Yeah, there's a problem with the chairs,” he said.

The St. Louis and Suburban Radio Club had rented one chair per table, which should have been fine. But some of the early-bird vendors had grabbed bunches of them, leaving many tables with none. Well, there was no way that I could stay on my feet for the next five hours, so I snatched a couple of chairs from the snack bar area and high-tailed it back to the ARES tables.

No one yelled at me, so either they hadn't noticed or they were sympathetic to my plight.

I did some final touch-ups to my area. The ARES banner needed one more tie wrap to hold it in place, and I had brought a handful. (Since I had spares, I also gave one to another vendor who was having similar banner problems.)

Our ARES group's only source of income is donations, and many of those come in the form of... well, “surplus items”. I had scavenged through my own basement the night before, and brought a nice assortment of surplus items myself. I placed these on our “sale” table and then started putting price tags on everything. The prices I came up with were more or less random. Potential buyers were going to try to talk them down anyway. I placed an “obligatory flashing light” at the center of the tables and I was all ready to go.

Twenty minutes before the doors opened I was tense and my back was already starting to ache. I couldn't seem to relax.

Then a stranger came by, recognized me as the author of this column, and told me that he enjoyed my writing.

That made my day.

Back Me Up


Back me up
left to right:Peter Brisbine, N0MTH; Eric Kaufmann, KC0GRA; and me
Photo courtesy of Harry Ferris, K0QS

Shortly afterward Harry Ferris, K0QS showed up to help me.

Although Steve couldn't attend Winterfest, he made sure that I wouldn't have to do everything by myself. He had called for ARES volunteers to help man the tables, assigning them to one-hour shifts. Harry was the first to arrive, and I was mighty glad to see him. During the event I was also assisted by Eric, KC0GRA; Peter, N0MTH; Janelle, N0MTI; Doug, K0DRA, Dolores, KD0CIV; Joe, W0FY; Bob, WA4GDX; and Brian, N1LY. I was grateful for each and every one of them. Several worked far more than the single hour that they had promised, and at times we had quite a large contingent behind the tables. They were a genial crew, though, and it worked out well. They were pretty savvy and didn't need much in the way of instructions. All I had to tell them was, “Everything on this side of the flashing light is free, and everything on that side has a price tag on it.”

Two hours into the hamfest and we talked to a lot of people, handed out numerous fliers and other promotional material, but had yet to sell any of our fine assortment of surplus items. And despite spending a lot of quality time with my chair (I never let it out of my sight) my back was hurting worse than ever. Seeing that we had a plenty of folks behind the tables, I decided to take a walk and see what else was going on.

A Fistful of Dollars

Winterfest is a sizable operation, all indoors (this is January in the Midwest, don't forget). There were a great many vendors and a whopping crowd.

Ah, the sights and sounds of a hamfest have a unique quality all their own. The babble of the attendees was augmented by squawky gibberish emanating from countless tiny speakers. Somewhere a poorly trained musician tuned up for a solo performance (a vendor had a trombone sitting on his table and a number of people had to give it a try). Laser beams probed the ceiling as toy helicopters skimmed over the gathering. And somewhere among the endless heaps of electronic merchandise being sold was, I was sure, something I that had once owned. That didn't bother me so much as the thought that I might wind up buying it again.

My sojourn through the hamfest took a lot longer than I had expected. When I got back to the ARES tables I found that quite a few of the items on the sale table had been sold. For a moment I wondered if my absence had anything to do with it, and even considered leaving again, but my back was still giving me fits so I reclaimed my chair and sat down.

One of the volunteers manning the tables declared that he was going to buy some of the remaining items himself. He pulled out his wallet, looked inside, and frowned.

“I'm missing twenty dollars,” he said unhappily.

Noticing that he was clutching a number of yellow stubs in one hand, I said, “Did you buy a bunch of raffle tickets with it?”

He held up the ticket stubs, stared at them blankly for a moment, then said, “Oh. Right.”

I nodded and leaned back in the chair. Been there, done that. Still wondering what I did with my last twenty dollar bill.

Motrin and Meatballs

stuffed SUV

Stuffed SUV.. somehow we got it all in there

If you've attended many hamfests you'll know that the crowd thins dramatically after the major door prizes have been given away. At Winterfest the prize winners were announced at noon, and shortly thereafter half the vendors began to pack up and three quarters of the attendees disappeared. I waited about twenty minutes, but when it became clear that no attendees were coming within 100 feet of our tables I figured it was time to close up shop.

At previous hamfests it had taken Steve and me a fair amount of time to disassemble everything, pack it up, and shuttle it piece by piece out to our vehicles. At those hamfests where I'd had to do it by myself it had seem to take hours. That's what I was anticipating this time, so I was pleased to find that several volunteers had hung around to help with the tear-down. It went much more quickly and smoothly than I could've imagined. Best of all, Joe managed to procure an incredibly rare hand cart and we got everything out to my SUV in one trip. (Getting it all into my SUV was a bit more challenging.)

I drove back to the Missouri side of the river and my home in Florissant, where I received an enthusiastic welcome from my dog, Ariel.

“She's been sulking all day,” said Nancy. “She didn't hear you leave this morning and didn't know what happened to you.”

I petted Ariel and told her that I would never abandon our little family. Thus assured, she bounded outside to harass the birds, squirrels, and other denizens of the back yard.

“My back is killing me,” I said to Nancy. “Let me take a couple of Motrin, then I'll take you out to dinner.”

We went to an Italian restaurant, where I supplemented the Motrin with meatballs. Upon returning home, I finalized my painkilling regimen with a nice, long nap in my La-Z-Boy recliner.

Now that's the way to end a hamfest.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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