The Amateur Amateur: Saturday in the Park with Ray
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
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.
August 14, 2003
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
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.
for the smell of it rather than the flavor," I replied.
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
club's Field Day event, and if he
was going to be
miserable, tired, and sweaty he wanted to make sure that I
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.
he said. "We're simulating real emergency conditions. If it
rains, we carry on anyway."
truly experience Field Day, I have to be exhausted, stinky, and
" 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
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, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
But what about the radio
events?" I asked.
Everything starts at 1 o'clock," he answered.
I was a little
perplexed by the exchange but thought nothing of it at the time.
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
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
, here to write an article about us." I kept
trying to set the record straight, saying that I had no connection to
, 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
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.
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."
Clearly these people had had a lot of experience.
"So, what band will you be using for CW?" I asked.
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.
matter of finding enough operators who are proficient in CW and are
willing to come out here on Field Day," said Eric.
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.)
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
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 ***
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
© 2003 American Radio Relay League