The Amateur Amateur: Side Effects

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
October 2016

200 Meters and Down cover

200 Meters and Down, a fascinating read

When I obtained my Amateur Radio license over twenty years ago, I had only a vague idea what to do with it. It was just something I possessed, not something that defined who I was. It took me a while to realize that something about me had changed, but eventually it dawned on me that I didn't just have an Amateur Radio license, I was an Amateur Radio operator.

There is no way that I could have anticipated the ways that fact would alter the course of my life.

Let me share with you some of the unexpected things that happened to me as a consequence of getting that license. There were, obviously, direct effects, such as learning about radio, propagation and so forth. But there were also indirect effects, pursuits that I found myself following, that were not specifically related to Amateur Radio itself.

Studying: It may shock you to learn that I made it all the way through school and college without ever really learning how to study. Before you say, "Man, are you lucky!", my grades fluctuated wildly, and unless the subject was of particular interest to me, I retained virtually none of it after I passed the test. I thought I had some sort of mental aberration, that I was kind of smart-yet-dumb, never understanding that there was an actual methodology to studying.

One day I decided to get an Amateur Radio license. When I started looking at the question pool for the technician license exam, yikes! The whole idea of getting a ham license suddenly seemed impossible.

Fortunately for me, my wife Nancy (now N0NJ) had also decided to get a technician license. She knew how to study, and very gently taught me how to do so as well. I most definitely wouldn't have succeeded without her guidance.

Here is the side effect. Now that I knew how to study, I became interested in all kinds of things. I got the "learning bug", so to speak. To this day, I still buy books, watch science shows, and download information on all manner of subjects from the Internet. I just love discovering new things and learning all about them.

History: Well, you might consider my interest in history as being part of "studying", but it really was Amateur Radio that started it. Nancy (that wonderful woman who taught me how to study) bought me a book titled Two Hundred Meters and Down: The Story of Amateur Radio by Clinton B. DeSoto. Copyrighted in 1936, this was an old publication. Not only that, the physical book itself was old, possibly even an original print. I was totally enraptured by it. Reading the story of early radio and the budding experimenters' struggle to stay on the air was fascinating.

The side effect is that I will now read or watch almost anything historical. Just as the efforts of the early Amateur Radio pioneers shaped the hobby we know today, every historical period has had a significant impact on our present world. All of that stuff I used to consider as dry and dull in school suddenly has direct meaning to what's happening all around me. "So, that's how it all started!" I find myself saying, over and over again.

My house: Having lived in my present house for forty years, naturally I know a lot about it (especially those parts that are prone to problems). But, because of Amateur Radio, I have become intimately familiar with its roof. The roof, the attic crawlspace, and every hidden opening that might serve as a channel for running coax have become close friends of mine. I've certainly put a lot more effort into rooftop projects than, say, working on the guest bedroom. I've spent a lot of quality time up on top of my house, working on antennas, surveying the neighborhood, and practicing not falling off. Every trip up there is a new adventure, but there is one prime, inflexible rule: Always get Safety Officer Nancy's permission first.

nut, bolt, washers

Uuummmm, what does pitch mean again?

Ladders: Again, it might seem that this topic had already been covered, but trips to the roof are just part of the story. I learned a lot about ladders while trying to route coaxial cable. I know exactly which of my collection of ladders to use to get up the side of the house, hoist myself up into the attic crawlspace, or use in the basement to mount cable channels. Apparently, ladders are lawsuit magnets, as every new one that I buy has about six more common-sense warning stickers on it than the last one I bought. I read them all. Remaining intact is a high priority with me.

Electricity: When I bought my house, I knew that I wanted to do two things: Put an antenna on the roof and set up a radio shack in the basement. When I started making plans to do the latter, two things became very apparent. First, it was too dark down there. And second, there was only one electrical outlet, and it was being used by the washer and dryer. I had a radical idea (even for me). Would it be possible for me to install my own lights, really bright ones, like shop lights? And (gasp!) could I install additional electrical outlets? Well, I knew such things were completely beyond my abilities at that time, but could I learn how to do them? It was still an iffy proposition. After all, electricity was scary stuff. It could hurt you.

I went to the nearest hardware store and looked through the do-it-yourself manuals. Yes, they had books on installing wiring, the wire itself, tools, accessories, all of it (hardware stores won't try to discourage you from trying anything). But how safe was all of this?

What I wound up buying was the manual on electrical codes and standards. I read it veeeeery carefully.

Skipping over all of the nerve-wracking, sweat-pouring-down-my-face stuff, I succeeded. I installed the wiring, the lights, the outlets, connected it all to the circuit breaker box, and managed not to set any fires. I stringently followed the codes, and a professional electrician later looked at it all, nodded, and said, "I'd hire you."

Gary and ladder

Know the right ladder to use for each job. I have several.

So, I had power to run everything in my shack, plus plenty of power for expansion. But, by that time my attention had wandered to something else entirely: Backup power.

Nuts: No, not walnuts, peanuts, or cashews. Hardware, as in nuts and bolts. (If you are old enough to be asking, "First electricity and now nuts and bolts. Don't they teach this stuff in school anymore?", the answer is no, they don't.)

Here is the scenario, and how Amateur Radio got me there. I was on the roof of my house (of course) temporarily attaching a Yagi antenna to an existing mast. It doesn't matter why, but obviously I was trying to reach a station that my regular antennas couldn't hit. It didn't work, so I decided to try my luck with a different far-off-station, about 105 degrees clockwise from the first. Hmmm, I couldn't loosen one of the nuts holding the Yagi onto the mast. Lubricant didn't help, and my efforts only resulted in a horrible screeching sound. Okay, that wasn't going to work. I'd have to think about how to get the Yagi down, but in the meantime, I'd still like to try to reach that second distant station. How about if I rotated the whole mast?

That is when I discovered that every nut and bolt on the mast's tripod mount had completely rusted over.

Sometime after I'd released the Yagi antenna (I had to destroy the U-bolt holding it onto the mast), I went up to measure the tripod's nuts and bolts so that I could replace them. Hmm. I had no idea how to measure them. The wrench I used only told me the size of the hexagonal head of the bolt. (No, they don't teach that in school, either.)

Thus began my study of nuts and bolts. I quickly figured out how to measure those on the tripod, but the variety and complexity of fastener hardware was incredible! Not only did my nuts and bolts have length and width, but also something called pitch. Then there was quality, material, and, of course, everything was measured differently in metric.

By the way, the only way for me to make an accurate measurement was to pull a nut/bolt from an identical tripod that had not rusted over. It being newer, the manufacturer had actually switched to non-rusting materials.

Weather: I'll wrap up this column by explaining how Amateur Radio got me interested in weather. "But wait!" you say. "Everyone is interested in the weather!" True enough, we all have some such knowledge. But Amateur Radio introduced me to Skywarn, the National Weather Service's program for training members of the public to be weather spotters. I've taken the NWS spotter class a number of times (I like to get a refresher every few years) and there is always something new and interesting. So, now I can look at the sky and say with authority, "Yeah, that stuff to the south looks scary. But that to the west of us is really dangerous!"

There's more, of course. Many, many things that I do on computers are offshoots of something that I got into because of Amateur Radio. There is also my interest in volunteerism, (Skywarn, ARES, and more). And I have to mention that this column, which has been running in one place or another for twenty years, was my first (and longest) sustained effort at writing.

I can hardly wait to see where Amateur Radio takes me next.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

Back to The Amateur Amateur home page Back to Past Columns page