The Amateur Amateur: 30 Minutes 'til the Doors Open

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
February 2018

ARES tables at Winterfest 2018
Steve, KC0QMU, putting the finishing touches on the ARES tables

I'm on the road very early on a Saturday morning. It's cold, dark, and I'm just barely awake. All of the other drivers out here seems to be going going at supersonic speeds, compelled by some primal urge that I can't fathom. Either that, or they've had way too much coffee.

As I cross the river into Illinois, it starts to rain. All in all, it's a pretty miserable start to the day. But, as all things in the universe tend to balance out, perhaps all this gloom will turn out to be a positive sign. Maybe the hamfest itself will be pretty good.

I'm headed for Winterfest 2018, the biggest hamfest of the year for the St. Louis area.

Winterfest is run by the St. Louis and Suburban Radio Club, and while I am a member, that's not why I'm going there this morning. I have volunteered to help man the St. Louis Metro ARES table today.

Wow, how many times have I done this? I can't remember at which hamfest it was, but our first ARES table consisted of two of us, a banner, and a stack of applications. We didn't have anything else. That was about fourteen years ago.

Things have changed considerably since then. The banners (plural) are newer, and we now have mounting hardware for them, instead of duct-taping them to the front of the table. We have at least two people at the table during the entire hamfest, with other ARES volunteers assisting from time-to-time. We usually bring ARES vests and caps to wear, but frequently don't put them on. Hamfest attendees often get quite irritated when their camera flashes result in pictures that only show the reflective strips of our gear.

The biggest change, however, is that we now have two tables instead of one. Yes, we have a considerable amount of literature to display. We have ARES, Skywarn, and ARRL brochures, event flyers, business cards, and even buttons. But all that takes up just one table. What takes up the second table is...

Well, I was going to say "junk". But at hamfests, one man's junk is another man's tarnished gold, just waiting to be rehabilitated. You see, our ARES group is funded entirely by donations. Very little of that is in the form of cash. The bulk of it is in the form of surplus items, or articles given to us from the estates of Silent Keys. So, the second table is where we display it all, and hope that we can convert some of it into money to pay our insurance and other expenses.

Antennas: Well, we sold a few of them.

Lately, we have been overwhelmed with the stuff. That doesn't mean we've suddenly become rich, far from it. Mostly, it just means that the head of our ARES group, Steve, KC0QMU, never has space in his garage to park his car.

I finally arrive at the Gateway Convention Center in Collinsville, Illinois. Perversely, it stops raining the moment I park my vehicle. But, I choose to take this as a good sign.

I enter the building and head for the main room. I'm greeted by the familiar face of Art, KC0KCR, who is acting as doorman. I've known Art for a long time, but I only ever see him at Winterfest, and he's always guarding the door. Sometimes I wonder if, once the hamfest is over, they simply roll him up and store him away somewhere until the next year. Just beyond Art is Rebecca, KC9CIJ. She's wrangling the whole affair, and already looks harried. She's probably been here for hours. She spots me and points to where the ARES tables are located.

I set out in that direction, where I can see that Steve has already performed most of the setup. It looks like he just needs help putting together the mounting hardware for the banners. I regret that I can't do more of the physical labor, but hauling and heavy lifting are now beyond my abilities.

Before I get to the ARES tables, I am intercepted by Kyle, N0KTK. He is on the SLSRC's Engineering Committee.

Steve joins us, and Kyle gives us an update on the club repeater that ARES uses. It's developed a few quirks, and Kyle lets us know what's wrong and what steps he's taken to fix it. He looks both frustrated and apologetic, but there is no need. It's a universal law that stuff breaks.

I help Steve assemble the mounting hardware and put up the banners. I glance at the information table and notice that there are not promotional buttons. Not a problem, I have some out in my vehicle.

"Art," I say, nodding as I leave.

"Gary," he replies.

Out in the parking lot, it's starting to get light. The rain has gone and the clouds are beginning to dissipate. I head for my SUV, and to my amusement, there is another vehicle with Amateur Radio plates and an antenna parked right next to mine. I shake my head vigorously and think: Of course there's another ham parked next to you. Just look around!

ARES junk table
Our "hamfest classic" items

Oh. Right. This is the one place where it is guaranteed that I will spot another Amateur's vehicle. It's a good thing that I remembered where I was parked. Trying to spot my special antenna just wasn't going to cut it in this lot!

I retrieve the box of buttons from my SUV and head back inside.



"We've got to stop meeting like this," I say.

Art smiles, but it occurs to me that I probably said the same thing last year. And the year before that.

I get back to the ARES tables and distribute the "When All Else Fails" buttons. I use to make these by hand, but it was very labor intensive. I eventually gave in and had them made professionally.

I gaze at our "hamfest classic" table, the one containing things that we hope to sell. Steve sure has a wide assorted of items on it. Bullhorn-like speakers, commercial mobile radios reprogrammed for Amateur Radio frequencies, three huge Heathkit boxes that do heaven-knows-what, and plenty more. Propped in one corner are a variety of antennas. Propped in the other corner are several fluorescent shop lights.

"Are those for sale?" I say jokingly. I'm pretty sure that they belong to the convention center.

"Yeah, they are," Steve replies.

He's completely serious.

junk in a box
"Classic" items we never got around to putting on the table

I glance at my watch. 30 minutes 'til the doors open.

Sighing, I say, "Okay, what's the price on all of this stuff?"

Steve tells the how much he wants for each item and how much he's willing to accept (hams always want to bargain, no matter how low the price). I need to know all this, because Steve and I will find ourselves constantly swapping positions at the tables as the hamfest progresses.

We have a few minutes to chat before the hamfest begins. Steve tells me that he's already made a few sales. This isn't unusual. The dealers at every hamfest prowl the tables before the doors officially open and try to snatch up any bargains. For those attendees who feel that this is unfair, they have another chance when the hamfest concludes. All they have to do is wait by the dumpster. There will always be dealers who would rather throw away certain items rather than haul them home.

It's now 8:00 AM.

The doors open.

The room is suddenly full of people.

Winterfest 2018 had begun.


My unpleasant morning drive did, indeed, foretell a good hamfest. There were a lot of attendees, and we had many visitors at the ARES tables.

We sold quite a few items, but Steve had brought so many that we never even opened half of the boxes. I can never guess what will sell and what won't. I'm always wrong. Even when certain items sold like hotcakes the previous year, they may just sit there growing mold the next year. The Heathkit Mystery Boxes all sold. About half of the commercial mobile radios sold. Some antennas sold. None of the shop lights did. None of the speakers did. And here's a hint: Cabinets with drawers full of components or other items never sell, regardless of the price. I suspect that they might sell if we just emptied the drawers.

I bought a million raffle tickets, but despite a huge number of lesser door prizes, I didn't even get Post-it note saying, "Congratulations! You are a winner!" S'okay, I'm happy to donate to the club, and I've won plenty of doo-dads in the past.

I do wonder, however, if perhaps we should hang onto those shop lights. Who knows, next year they might be a hot item.

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