The Amateur Amateur: Saturday in the Park with Ray
(Part I)

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
August 14, 2003

It was a strange moment. On the one hand I felt closer to the group than I had before. On the other hand, I felt guilty that I had never developed any CW proficiency myself.

I'm always looking for new experiences (and new material to write about), so when I heard that Field Day was coming up I thought I'd look into it. I downloaded the Field Day rules from the ARRL Web site. And downloaded. And downloaded. After reading a few pages I figured, "Maybe I'll just hang out with some club and see how other people do it."

The St Charles Amateur Radio Club had been kind enough (and foolish enough) to invite me to be a guest speaker at a meeting last year, so it seemed a likely candidate. I contacted Ray Martin, K0WC, who is a member of the club and a friend of mine. Ray, and club president Ron Ochu, KO0Z, were very gracious and said that if I wanted to lurk around the club's Field Day site, I was perfectly welcome to do so.

Ray and I exchanged number of e-mail messages, and I learned that Field Day would be a day-and-a-half event, starting on June 28. He said that the "advance guard" of the Field Day team would be at the site at 7:30 AM. Although I wanted to get the complete flavor of the event, there was absolutely no way that I was going to be coherent that early on a Saturday morning. I also couldn't see staying all night Saturday, right into Sunday morning. I haven't done an all-night anything since my college days. And what would I write about? "Fell asleep around 10 PM. Dreamt about Morse code and gasoline generator fumes"

My brother Chris, K1KC, was disappointed in my decision to do an abbreviated Field Day.

"How can you get the 'flavor' of it if you don't collapse, exhausted, unable to say 'CQ Field Day' one more time?" he exclaimed.

"I'll settle for the smell of it rather than the flavor," I replied.

"No, you don't want to do that," he said. "By the second day, some of those hams are going to be pretty ripe."

Basically he was telling me that I couldn't really appreciate Field Day unless I was exhausted and stinky. (The truth is that Chris was the chairman of his club's Field Day event, and if he was going to be miserable, tired, and sweaty he wanted to make sure that I was miserable, tired, and sweaty as well.)

As Field Day approached it looked like it was going to rain in the St Charles area. I asked Ray if the local event might be cancelled.

"Nope," he said. "We're simulating real emergency conditions. If it rains, we carry on anyway."

"So, to truly experience Field Day, I have to be exhausted, stinky, and soaking wet!?" I gasped.

Ray thought about it, then said, "Yeah, that's about right."

Hmmm. This Field Day business seemed to require a lot of dedication. Was I going to encounter a lot of serious, clenched-jaw types, hovering over their equipment and wishing the nosy columnist would go away? Only time would tell.

I arrived at the Field Day site chosen by the club mid-morning on Saturday. It wasn't "bright" and it wasn't "early." It had rained on and off during the week, and the forecast for Saturday was still somewhat in doubt. Clouds floated above threateningly. The site was a mid-sized recreational park hidden away in the suburbs. Half of the parking lot was flooded. I pulled into one of the last remaining dry spots and made my way to the park's covered picnic area.

Ray Martin, K0WC

Ray Martin, K0WC, my host.

There were radios. There were cables. There were antennas. Out in the field there were tents. There was food. And, ah! There was Ray.

Ray jumped up and greeted me warmly. He introduced me to his companions (have you ever noticed that hams only have first names and call signs?) and started to show me around.

The field was still pretty wet and muddy from earlier rains. Ray told me that this park was not where the club usually camped out on Field Day. There had been a scheduling error, and the club had been unable to get the park they wanted. They had to settle for the current site.

"Our regular park is on higher ground," said Ray. "This one was under several feet of water just a few days ago."

I could believe it. The park was surrounded on three sides by a creek, and parts of it were still underwater. This park also did not have the "civilian traffic" that the main park had. That meant that the club's "GOTA" (Get On The Air) station set up in part to encourage curious visitors to experience ham radio likely would get very little use.

Park under water

The park had been underwater a few days earlier.

Still, spirits were high. Only Mike McCrann, WD0GSY, the club's Field Day Chairman, seemed flustered. He was supervising the erection of a Barker & Williamson antenna. This mainly consisted of tying a rope to a hammer, throwing the hammer at a tree and then foraging around in the creek to find out where it had landed.

"It never fails," he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. "There's always a knot in the coax."

He did take a few minutes to talk to me--and to catch his breath. And judging from how much already had been accomplished, I guessed that he'd been hard at work for several hours before I got there. He described the layout and where the various radios were located.

I asked him about the schedule of events.

"Breakfast has already been served. Lunch will be about midday, then dinner, then the cooks will return at midnight to take care of the night crew. They'll be back tomorrow to serve breakfast. Then the big event tomorrow . . . leftovers," he said.

"Um, okay. But what about the radio events?" I asked.

"Oh. Everything starts at 1 o'clock," he answered.

I was a little perplexed by the exchange but thought nothing of it at the time.

The B&W antenna Mike was setting up was for the "80 meter/160 meter tent." There was also a "CW tent," and the two tents shared a gasoline generator. The rest of the radio equipment was in the picnic pavilion.

I went over to watch a 30-foot-long pole being erected next to the CW tent. Eric Koch, NF0Q, had a homebrew wire antenna connected to it. He explained how the wire had various traps on it and could be tuned to different bands.

I began to notice that each time that I was introduced to someone my status got elevated. I had started out simply as Gary Hoffman (actually, "Gary, KB0H"), a guy looking for material for his Amateur Radio column. By the time I met Eric, I had been promoted to "Gary Hoffman from QST, here to write an article about us." I kept trying to set the record straight, saying that I had no connection to QST, and that I had not been sent by anyone. But it was of no use. I was carrying a camera and kept scribbling notes on a pad, so my protests fell on deaf ears. I was designated as an Important Person.

After I had tripped over the same tent peg twice, I decided I'd seen enough of Eric's antenna. I went inside the CW tent. The first thing I noticed was that the tent seemed to be doing a good job of keeping the mosquitoes in, not out. The second thing I noticed was that, although there was an electrical cord running into the tent from the gas generator, the radio wasn't plugged into it. I asked Eric about this.

Mike McCrann, WD0GSY

Field Day Chairman Mike McCrann, WD0GSY: "It never fails. There's always a knot in the coax."

"The radio will be battery-powered," he explained.

"Then, what's the electrical plug for?" I asked.

"That's for the fan we'll use to blow the mosquitoes out."

Aha! Clearly these people had had a lot of experience.

"So, what band will you be using for CW?" I asked.

"We'll be working the 40-meter band in here," he replied. "But I doubt we'll be doing much CW."

"You won't be doing CW in the CW tent?" I said, flabbergasted.

"It's a matter of finding enough operators who are proficient in CW and are willing to come out here on Field Day," said Eric.

Eric Kock, NF0Q

Eric Koch, NF0Q, captain of the CW tent.

It was a strange moment. On the one hand I felt closer to the group than I had before. They weren't all super operators, capable of banging away at over 100 WPM. On the other hand, I felt guilty that I had never developed any CW proficiency myself.

I wandered over to the picnic pavilion to see what was happening there. About half of the space was dedicated to radios, batteries, and technical stuff like that. The other half was for food and socializing. (I was beginning to get a sense of the group's priorities.)

Since meals seemed to be a very important part of the event, I went over to talk to the "cooks." They were Suzanne Horn, KB0OMB, and William Horn, N0YYS (isn't that a great call sign?? "Noise!"). A husband/wife team, they represent a bit of a reversal from the typical situation: She got into ham radio before he did. She had been a teacher and became interested when there was a SAREX (Shuttle/Space Amateur Radio EXperiment) contact at her school. (The Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, program now handles school group contacts with the ISS crew; ham radio has not been flown as a shuttle payload for several years.--Ed)

Kids asking for food

As long as we kept feeding them, the kids hung around.

I talked to Suzanne and William for a while and found that their only job was to feed the attendees (Was I hungry? Did I want a sandwich? What kind of soda would I like?). They didn't stay at the site but always returned in time to serve the next meal--including the midnight "brunch." Judging from what I saw, they never let anyone go hungry. I had to admire their dedication.

Back in the technical area, there didn't seem to be much going on at the GOTA station. Very few people other than hams had ventured into the park. A couple of kids on bikes stopped by to see what was happening. Since I was the first to notice them, I started telling them about ham radio. I wasn't sure if I was getting through, though.

"Can we have a soda?" one of them asked.

"Ask them," I said, pointing toward Suzanne and William.

A few minutes later I saw the kids, arms laden with doughnuts, soda, and other goodies, walking among the picnic tables and idly looking at the equipment. Other "public relations" hams jumped in and started explaining everything. As long as we kept feeding them, the kids hung around and listened.

*** To be continued ***

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via email.

© 2003 American Radio Relay League


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