The Amateur Amateur: The Dead Repeater Disposal Squad

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
May 2018

disassembling repeater
Steve (behind the repeater) and Robert (back to the camera) disassembling the dead machine

It was a good repeater. By that, I don't mean that it was the most used, the easiest to reach, or put out the clearest signal. I just mean that it was used by a lot of people over a very long period of time. But, now its days were coming to an end.

I can't tell you much about the old machine, certainly nothing about its technical specs. I'd guess that it was a General Electric model of some sort, mainly because its cabinet said "General Electric" at the top. But beyond that, I know very little.

The history of the the repeater is shrouded in the mists of time. What I know of it comes from stories I heard, told by wizened old hams, who sit on obscure frequencies and tell tall tales for the price of a QSL card. No other documentation for the machine survives.

As near as I can tell, the original owner of the repeater was the St. Louis County Police Department. That much may be true, as the machine seems to have circulated within the St. Louis County community for quite a while. Once it has served its purpose for the police department, it was passed on to the St. Louis County Roads Department. I don't know how long either agency hung onto it, but eventually the county had no more use for it, and it wound up in the hands of an Amateur Radio operator named Mike.

Mike was a county employee and had many connections there. He arranged for the repeater to be housed in the basement of the St. Louis County Park Ranger station in Tilles Park, and had it re-tuned for the Amateur 2 meter band. He took up a collection, bought some coax and an antenna, and was able to put the antenna at the top of the ranger's radio tower.

I can confirm the beginnings of the repeater's Amateur Radio career, because I had contributed to the antenna fund myself. What I can't verify, though, was when or exactly how the machine died. The Old Hams Rumor Net says that it was struck by lightning. Personally, though, I think that it just got tired, went to sleep, and never woke up.

In any case, Mike was able to procure another cast-off repeater and had it up and running almost before anyone noticed that the first one had gone off the air. I didn't even know there had been a swap until years later, when I pieced together two different stories told by the Old Hams. Once the replacement repeater had been installed, re-tuned, and gone on the air, the old GE model just stayed there in the basement of the ranger station, gathering dust.

Now, we will jump forward several years.

Mike became a Silent Key in 2014. The managers of his estate turned over both repeaters to St. Louis Metro ARES, of which I am a member. As ARES had a good working relationship with St. Louis County, we were allowed to continue to house the machines in the basement of the ranger station.

Until recently.

Due to changes in the county government, the park rangers will soon be replaced by regular police officers, and the ranger station itself will be re-purposed. Fortunately, we will still be permitted to keep the active repeater there. But, we were told that the dead GE repeater had to go.

On a chilly March morning this year, three people met in the parking lot of the Tilles Park Ranger station. They were Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, Robert Burgert, K0BRM, and me. We were The Dead Repeater Disposal Squad.

repeater components
Some of the removed components

Steve, as the Emergency Coordinator for St. Louis Metro ARES, was in charge. He and Robert were the muscle. As I had no muscles myself, I was there to take photos and chronicle the event. (How am I doing so far?)

I probably don't have to tell you the obvious, but here it is anyway. The basement of the ranger station was cramped, cold, and dimly lit. The repeaters were located at the far end of the basement, nowhere near the stairs. The two machines sat side-by-side on wooden pallets, because the concrete floor occasionally got "damp". We were going to have to wrestle the GE repeater off of its pallet and down narrow corridors between overloaded shelving units.

And the blasted GE machine was heavy.

Steve and Robert quickly discovered that Phase One, getting the GE repeater off of the pallet, was not going to be easy. It could very easily tumble over and crash into a shelving unit, starting an almost comic cascade of other shelving units toppling over like dominoes, and eventually bringing down the whole ranger station into a pile of rubble with three dead ham radio operators underneath it all.

St. Louis County would not be pleased.

"May I make a suggestion?" I queried.

I asked if it would be possible to disassemble the machine and take it out a piece at a time.

There was a moment of silence while everyone gazed at the refrigerator-sized cabinet.

"I've got some tools in my car," said Steve.

While Steve went to get his tools, I stared at the ancient beast and wondered if we should just go ahead and phone the fire department. It might take the "jaws of life" of some automobile-slicing power saw to take this thing apart.

getting the cabinet up the stairs
Wrestling the cabinet up the stairs

The next hour was quite laborious (for Steve and Robert, anyway). Everything in the cabinet seemed to be held together with simple nuts, bolts and screws. So, the stalwart pair went at the machine with just screwdrivers, pliers, and cell phones (used as flashlights).

But, as you undoubtedly know already, no machine was ever built by ordinary people using ordinary tools. Just about everything appears to have been assembled by constructing the inner workings and the outer casing separately. Once both parts are ready, the inner workings are somehow teleported directly into the outer casing, and magically secured there. We all know this, because there is absolutely no way that any of us can reverse the process with out smashing something. Every machine built today was put together using secret tools that you can't buy even on ebay.

Either that, or they were assembled by Dark Elves.

So, Steve and Robert spent a lot of time trying to unfasten things hidden behind solid posts or inside unreachable locations. I marveled at their persistence, their steel-like fingers, and the fact that neither of them let loose with any profanity. (If I had tried it, I would have persisted up until I had accumulated enough cuts and bruises to pass out from blood loss.)

Very slowly, the major components of the repeater were disconnected and removed.

We were now ready to try Phase One again.

Steve and Robert wrestled the cabinet off of its pallet and onto the floor (which was not "damp" that day). It did not tumble into a shelving unit. No shelving units toppled like dominoes. The building remained standing. Phase One was a success.

Phase Two was to get everything out of the building. And, while Steve and Robert found a dolly and managed to get the cabinet to the stairway, getting it up the stairs was not so easy.

K0BRM and KC0QMU with repeater in SUV
It fits! Robert (left) and Steve (right) after loading the repeater parts into Steve's SUV

First, the cabinet was almost twice as tall as the dolly. Once everything was tipped over to go up the stairs, the "upper" guy would not longer be able to reach the dolly's handle. They would have to struggle the cabinet up the stairs without it.

Second, the cabinet had no convenient "handles". There was nothing for the "upper" guy to hang onto. He would be limited to guiding the cabinet as the "lower" guy shoved it up the stairs.

Third, there was only a tiny landing at the top of the stairs, meaning that the cabinet would have to be almost upright by the time it got there.

Obviously, most of the work would have to be done by the "lower" guy.

Robert drew the short straw.

The process of getting the cabinet up the stairs took a while, with lots of shouts of, "Hold it!", but it finally succeeded without anyone losing any fingers or toes.

Once the cabinet was outside, everything went fairly quickly. The cabinet was now light enough so that Steve could use his own mini fold-up dolly to get it to his SUV. The individual components were small enough and light enough that it only took one person to get them up the stairs and out to Steve's car.

I was amazed that everything fit, but Steve is usually pretty thorough about such things. I'm sure he had carefully measured everything well in advance.

"Where's it all going?" asked Robert.

"We can re-purpose the duplexers," replied Steve. "Everything else is going to an electronics recycling center."

I wonder if he meant a hamfest?

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