The Amateur Amateur: Twenty Minutes in the Shack
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
You have said the magic word. The way to the shack is open. (Don't
trip over the red bag.)
Batteries, chargers, and a MFJ whatsit-meter. (Watch out for the cables.)
Bins of stuff. (Many more on other shelves.)
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
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
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
Bottom shelf: More heavy duty 12 volt batteries.
Next shelf: Smaller batteries, battery chargers, and the power supply for my
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
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.