The Amateur Amateur: The Book That Never Was

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
October 2019

The Book That Never Was
Ultimate fate of my book

If there is anything less coherent, messier and more spread around than the contents of my shack, it is the collection of notes I've made to myself. Some of the notes are hand-written and some are on my computer. Often they are in a folder marked "Radio Notes" or something similar, which would seem to indicate that they are easy to find. The problem, however, is that there are dozens of such folders. The physical ones are scattered around my shack and study, the computer ones stashed deep under layers of other folders. Basically, it would take a team of archeologists years to find them all.

Anyway, I occasionally go looking for some specific note that I know I left for myself, but I rarely find it. Much more commonly, I will stumble across a note completely by accident, say, "Oh yeah, I need to look into that!", then file it away some other place. Recently, though, I came across notes for a book that I intended to write: a guide for prospective and/or beginning Amateur Radio operators.

Those of you who know my column well can stop laughing now, or gnashing your teeth with rage, whichever the case may be. I never wrote the book. I probably never will, because:

  1. Although I've been a ham for 24 years, most of my technical expertise amounts to things like, "Don't stick your finger in the socket."

  2. Writing a book would be a lot of work.

Nevertheless, my notes did contain some interesting things to consider. For example, the first note for the proposed book said, "What is Amateur Radio? Keep it short."

Well, right away I can see why the book never got anywhere. I have never been able to come up with a short, concise description of Amateur Radio. I tend to ramble on and on, talking about the services created by the FCC, the various private radio services, and so forth. The people who were unfortunate enough to ask me that question usually got glassy-eyed after my fifth sentence, openly yawning by the tenth sentence, and comatose by the time I had ended. I just couldn't come up with a single sentence that seemed to describe the hobby adequately.

Further down the list was: "Do I need to know electronics? Morse code? Technical stuff?"

I got stuck there, too, because the answer to all three questions was, "It depends." I'd probably lose a lot of prospective readers right there, because the conditions, caveats, and exceptions that followed would go on for many pages.

"Where can I get help?" was a good question. My answers would have been:

  1. A local club

  2. The ARRL

  3. A mentor

  4. The Internet

Each of those are good sources, and each also has drawbacks. Take a local club, for example. You have to find the right club, one that specifically welcomes and encourages newcomers. Unfortunately, neither Consumer Reports nor Angie's List rates ham radio clubs, so you are left to figure it out on your own.

The ARRL can be a great source of information, but it can also be overwhelming. If you have no trouble navigating their website or reading their "beginner's guide" books, then I congratulate you on your technical acumen and clarity of thought. As for me, I'm sorry to admit that I need the Dr. Seuss version.

Mobile Flambe
My car after a disasterous radio installation

It's usually easy for a new ham to find a mentor. Just walk up to any licensed Amateur Radio operator and say, "Can you help me?" The answer will almost always be, "Yes!" Hams love to talk about the hobby. The big question is, will your mentor actually be helpful? Perhaps. Just hope that he/she doesn't tend to over or under explain things, and can stay on topic.

One thing is for sure, the information the prospective or new ham needs or wants will definitely be somewhere on the Internet. Note that I did not say that it could be found on the Internet. As with every other topic, finding good information on the Web is akin to finding a specific frog in the Okefenokee Swamp. You're going to get very lost and probably not find what you're looking for.

Here's a question you've probably heard before, "What do I do once I get my license?" I find this a little peculiar, because it seems to me that most Amateur Radio operators got their license for some specific reason. If that were that case, the answer would always be, "Follow your dream!".

But I may be misinterpreting the question. It's possible that it means "What am I supposed to do now? What is the secret handshake? Where are the barracks? What time is chow?" In other words, the new ham simply wants someone to hold their hand. So, if you hear such a question, please be gentle and speak in soothing tones.

"What radio should I buy?" is a question that is very dangerous to answer, especially if you happen to be with other hams when you hear it. No matter what you say, you will upset someone. About the safest response would be, "A two meter hand-held transceiver, but not the cheapest you can find." Vague, but at least you won't get a lot of dirty looks.

"How do I install a radio in my car?" is one that I feel that I can partially answer.

  1. Don't do anything until you have a plan.

  2. For you first installation, don't do anything permanent to your car,

  3. Do not power your radio through your car's cigarette lighter.

  4. Always use fuses on your power lines.

Please do not write to me and ask how to install a radio in your specific car. Those four rules are all that I feel competent to say. Honestly. I once set my own car on fire (see my column u>Mobile Flambe).

I also found "But I'm a woman!" in my book notes. My wife probably slipped that in there, but it's a concern voiced by many women thinking about getting a license. I think the best response I can give is to tell you about how she got hers.

Gary with homemade Yagi
Advice: Don't irradtiate your head.

It started years ago when the head of our local police scanner club told us that he was going to hold an Amateur Radio license class. I decided to attend, and largely to be polite, I asked my wife Nancy if she would like to go with me. Much to my surprise, she said yes.

I was blown away. She had always been a complete technophobe up until then. Anything electronic or mechanical baffled her. But, as surprised as I was, I was also pleased.

Skip forward: We both passed the exams, and of course, Nancy got 100% of the answers right. We went on to pass the other license class exams, became volunteer examiners, weather spotters, and so forth. At some point I asked her why she had decided to get that first license. Her answer was very telling.

We were both part of the post World War II "baby boom". For our generation, boys had classes in carpentry, soldering metal and such. Girls learned to cook and sew. In short, boys were expected to go out and get job after leaving high schools, but girls weren't. They were expected to become homemakers.

Things had changed by the time we became adults, but Nancy still felt that lack of technical training in her early life. Getting that ham license was her way of partly making up for what she had missed. It was "empowerment", as she put it. She often told younger women "If I did it, anyone can do it". I think that "If Gary did it, anyone can do it," would have been closer to the truth, but I understood her point. There is very little that women cannot do.

Not everything in my notes for a book were in the form of questions. There were also words of advice, such as:

  1. Safety first (check with your wife before doing it).

  2. First, make sure that you are allowed to put up that antenna.

  3. Read the manual.

  4. Don't irradiate your head.

Anyway, no book will be forthcoming. Perhaps I'll revisit the idea of writing it some time in the future.

If I can find that folder again.

(Email = [email protected])

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