The Amateur Amateur: Twenty Minutes in the Shack

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
July 2016

corridor to shack

You have said the magic word. The way to the shack is open. (Don't trip over the red bag.)

cables, batteries, chargers

Batteries, chargers, and a MFJ whatsit-meter. (Watch out for the cables.)

bins of accessories

Bins of stuff. (Many more on other shelves.)

emergency lights, Q-signals

Emergency lights clinging to every surface.

I frequently find myself heading down into the basement to visit my shack. I'm not even sure why. Maybe I picked up something on social media about fantastic band conditions, a special event station, or some interesting net. Maybe it was for no reason at all. Sometimes I just feel the urge to do something "hammy".

Our basement is not finished. It's a big open area that sort of evolved into six general areas: Laundry, paint, gardening tools, holiday decorations and items that we don't need but also don't want to throw away, all-purpose workshop, exercise bicycle and entertainment center, and the radio shack. Perhaps a third of the shack is actually dedicated to a pile of boxes that grows and shrinks, depending on the season.

To get to shack, you have to navigate ever-tightening corridors between stored items. The borders of the six areas are ill-defined, and periodically I need to use a snow-plow to make a new pathway. (I'm thinking about purchasing a road grader.) But, if you follow the maze of twisty passages and say the magic incantations, you'll eventually see the beginnings of ham spore.

What appear to be music stands are actually field station antenna mast holders. The big blue plastic storage bin contains ARRL, ARES, and FEMA brochures. The big red bag you just tripped over is Go-Bag #1. That's the official demarcation line for the shack.

The shack area is defined by steel shelving units and the concrete basement wall. While the shelves contain a mix of ham and non-ham items, the wall clearly indicates that you have entered radio-land. Two large dry erase boards on the wall list common Q-signals (never used), and one of the two analog clocks on the wall displays Universal Coordinated Time in 24 hour format. All of that should be a dead giveaway.

If the rest of the basement suffers from ever-constricting passageways, the entrance to the shack does even more-so. In fact, the entire floor space of the shack gets smaller and smaller every time I go down there. You see, between buttons makers, obsolete repeater guides, fuses for all occasions, and old Doctor Who video tapes, there's no room left to put anything on the shelves. Everything else has to go on the floor.

What does wind up on the floor is incomplete projects. No, that's not quite true. Usually it's projects that I haven't actually started. (But I will, Real Soon Now.)

If you (or I, there's not room enough for both of us) sit in the single chair with the Goofy cushion, it will immediately start to roll in some random direction. The floor is more or less level, but the act of sitting down gets translated into lateral motion, and you have to put on the brakes before you crash into one of the projects. Actually, you'll hit the projects stack (already dangerously top-heavy) if you roll toward the north. If, on the other hand, you roll south, you'll hit a softer pile of go bags. If you find yourself scooting west, you'll hit the desk. Raise your feet immediately, or they'll be swallowed alive by the cables beneath. And finally, if you roll east, you'll bang into a pile that is a mystery to me. I have no idea what's in it, but it changes every time that I see it.

The desk isn't actually a desk. It is two tables placed side-by-side. One is a bona fide antique, and the other is a remnant left behind by the previous home owners. The left-most table holds the monitor, keyboard, and mouse of my main shack computer. The computer itself sits beneath the table, and has already been partially consumed by the cables.

The right-hand table contains everything else. Minimally, that would include my HF rig (rarely used), my dual-band rig (used at least once a week), a TNC and a Signalink sound card interface (used with great ferocity, but only occasionally), and probably most important of all, an electric pencil sharpener. The remaining space, which is measured in square inches rather than square feet, is either used to support my portable laptop during one of its endless Windows 10 updates, my notes during the weekly ARES net, my button-making apparatus, or some other activity-of-the-day. What lies beneath this table is a heavy 55 ampere/hour 12 volt battery nestled in a file box cart to make it portable.

But wait until I tell you about the steel shelving to the right of the tables.

Bottom shelf: More heavy duty 12 volt batteries.

Next shelf: Smaller batteries, battery chargers, and the power supply for my HF rig.

Middle shelf: Antenna tuner for a completely different HF radio (buried somewhere, I'm pretty sure that I still have it), a MFJ box that has a SWR meter on one side and a meter whose function I've forgotten on the other side, and finally, several hand held police scanners, all charged but unused for years.

Shelf just below the top: Now we're talking fanatic ham radio.. four transceivers, each powered by a separate source, each connected to an independent antenna, and all capable of operating simultaneously (resulting in an incredible amount of intermod, of course).

Top shelf: AT&T U-verse control box, dust, dead bugs.

This shelving unit also acts as a trellis for cables that are growing up three sides of it. They might have also attacked the fourth side, but that borders on another area of the basement, and the holiday decorations wouldn't have tolerated the intrusion. Once the cables reach the AT&T router, I may have to take a Weed Whacker and trim them back.

Leaning back in the chair and (carefully) swiveling around, I am truly amazed. What I behold looks like the habitat of an actual, serious (though slovenly) Amateur Radio operator. That's certainly not me. I still see myself as a beginner, just an amateur amateur. But goodness, there are power cable adapters, coax adapters, headset adapters. There are spare parts for Anderson Powerpoles, and, oh my, and actual crimper. There are power inverters and line conditioners. One of the tables is littered with scripts for emergency nets. There is a huge stack of button inserts saying, "When All Else Fails...". Somewhere in the tangle of cables crawling up the steel shelving I see the lights of a tiny TNC blinking. Portable emergency lights cling to almost every surface.

How did all of this stuff get here? Who put it here? (And when is he going to clean it up?)

Pulling one of the many composition books from a shelf, I open it and see that it is a chronicle of radio-related activities. "Nancy and I tried to put up the dual-discone cross arm. I misjudged the length of the cables, and both of them ripped free of the discone antennas. Somehow I managed to get spray paint in Nancy's hair."

Heh, yeah, that was my first attempt at fabricating an antenna mast stand-off. It was an utter disaster, but I learned a lot that day. I've made several stand-offs since then, and they've all worked fine.

Another entry describes some early digital experiments.

Oh wow! Blindly sending out a SSTV signal and getting a return one from Cuba really made my day!

Being appointed as an Assistant Emergency Coordinator in ARES.

The ARRL picking up my column for publication on its Web site.

I flip through the pages, nodding, smiling, sometimes grimacing. And suddenly I realize why I come down to the shack.

Yes, some days I come down to try, yet again, to get a HF signal to go farther than Minneapolis. Or to play around with some new digital software that I heard about.

But some days it's just to lean back, close my eyes, and remember.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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