The Amateur Amateur: Saturday in the Park with Ray, Part II

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
Saturday 28, 2003

We continue the saga of my participation in the St Charles Amateur Radio Club's Field Day activities. Last time, I described the relaxed, friendly atmosphere at the site.

generator and tent

The generator in the foreground was out of gas, not that it made any difference in the 80/160 meter tent.

At some point I realized that Field Day radio operation had started. No one fired a starter's pistol. No giant steam whistle blew. No one shouted over a bullhorn. In fact, it was barely detectable that "it" had begun!

The folks who had been chatting and eating were still chatting and eating. The only difference was that a handful of people were now working feverishly on the radios. Someone told me the action would be intense for the first six hours, during which lots of contacts would be made. Then things would slack off and there would be lots of "doubling" and "tripling" (contacting the same stations two or three times). By Sunday morning there would be a renewed surge of contacts.

Someone else offered me a sandwich. (Did I mention the surfeit of food?)

At least to this amiable group, Field Day was at least as much a social gathering as anything else. They were quite open about it. They were here to have fun.

I couldn't really fault that attitude. As relaxed as the atmosphere was, a lot of planning had obviously gone into it. Things worked. Operators followed procedures. Participants made and logged contacts. As long as things went well, was there any reason not to relax and have fun?

I went back to the putative CW tent to see how things were going.

The radio was chattering away as I entered (remember, they weren't doing CW in the "CW tent"). Now that the gasoline generator was going, the electric fan was working. It had, as promised, blown all of the mosquitoes out of the tent.

Two operators were at the transceiver. One handled the microphone and the other logged contacts. They both took notes and frequently compared them. Every now and then they switched positions. Eric Koch, NF0Q, sat behind them like the Captain of the Tent, occasionally offering suggestions.

I asked Eric if the operators stayed on one frequency or changed frequencies.

He said that they started at the bottom of the 40 meter band and worked their way up.

"Only a few stations will stay on a fixed frequency," he said. "Most will `hunt and pounce.'"

One of the operators tuned to a slightly higher frequency. The chatter coming from the speaker increased dramatically.

"We just crossed from the Extra class segment of the band into the General class segment," he explained.

Now I got to see some real HF artistry in action. Often we could hear a station that we wished to contact, but we could not get through. Every time our operator called, so did a dozen others, and our station was lost in the hubbub.

"Try this," Eric said calmly. He went on to describe a way to catch the attention of the desired station.

The operator did as Eric suggested, and it worked! The other station answered promptly.

Ron Ochu, KO0z

Ron Ochu, KO0Z, president of the St. Charles Amateur Radio Club and one of my hosts.

"It's an old shortwave operator's trick," said Eric.

He seemed to have dozens of such tricks, and they all worked. I can't tell you what they were because I was sworn to an oath of secrecy before I was allowed to leave the tent.

Seeing that things were well in hand there, I moved on to the 80/160-meter tent. Things were vastly different there. Heading this tent was Bill Nelson, KB0BWR, and Jim Templeton, N0PTN, but there was no "captain of the tent" supervising them. Neither was there a fan or--ominously--any radio traffic. There was just a mild hiss of static emanating from the transceiver.

Bill looked up at me and frowned.

"Uh oh, it's the reporter. We'd better behave," he said.

"I'm not a... oh, never mind," I said. By this time I realized it was futile trying to explain who I was--or wasn't. "It doesn't sound like you're having a lot of success."

"Eighty meters is dead," said Jim. "But it'll be hot tonight."

Don and Gail Griffith

Don and Gail Griffith, KB0TGO and KB0TGP. "I need an HF transceiver as well," said Gail. "I keep telling Don to win another one."

"You didn't get a fan," I said. "The guys in the CW tent have one."

Bill and Jim smiled wistfully at the thought of having a fan, but neither complained. The conversation did, however, turn to cool breezes and the merits of tree shade versus tent shade.

Suddenly the generator quit!

"Out of gas," said Bill.

A few moments passed in silence.

"Aren't you going to put gas in the generator?" I asked.

"Why?" said Jim. "Makes no difference on this band. At least this way we don't have to listen to the static."

There was a certain amount of perverse logic in his statement. I decided to leave the sweltering tent and see what was happening at the pavilion.

"Call 911 at about 4:30 and have an ambulance come pick us up," Bill called after me.

I promised that I would, but the intrepid pair concluded that it was time to take a break and get some soda. Being such nice fellows, they stopped off at the generator and refilled its fuel tank so their pals in the CW tent would again have a working fan.

Back at the picnic pavilion I found a couple sitting alone. Emboldened by my Important Person status, I sat down with them. In retrospect, I think they were trying to have a private conversation, and I shouldn't have intruded. But I had already broken the ice by accidentally bumping into a row of metal folding chairs, which fell over one at a time, domino fashion, making a hellish racket.

Having so cleverly caught the couple's attention, I introduced myself and began to ask questions. I found that they were Don Griffith, KB0TGO, and Gail Griffith, KB0TGP. We talked about the club's Field Day arrangements. They confirmed that food was an important part of the event.

"It brings people in," they said. Remembering how the kids on bikes had lingered as long as they were fed, I understood how true that was.

If you talk to any ham operator long enough you'll find that he or she has a great story to tell. Don and Gail were no exceptions. They told me about their abrupt introduction to the HF bands. It seems that within a week of passing their exams and becoming General class operators, Don won an HF transceiver at a hamfest. The following week they were on the HF bands at a Field Day event. They went from Technicians to HF ops in two amazing weeks.

"I need an HF transceiver as well," said Gail. "I keep telling Don to win another one."

Moving on, I took a look at the third of the club's three main stations. It had been quite busy all day and usually had at least four people hovering around it. Seeing that it was likely to remain that way, I moved to join the fringes of the onlookers. I noticed two very interesting things about the station. First, it was connected to a computer and was running PSK31--a digital mode. And second, the main operator was a young girl.

I had walked by the station several times during the day. Sometimes it was operating PSK31, while other times it was using single sideband, but the young girl was almost always at the controls. I found out that she was just 11 and that this was her first exposure to PSK31 and to HF. She handled it so well, though, that the station's control operator decided to let her keep running it.

Tape measure Yagi

Keith Vertees's tape-measure Yagi antenna.

This was not a fluke. The club had encouraged ham operators of all levels to get involved in Field Day. At least half of the working operators with whom I talked held Technician or General class licenses.

There was one final piece of radio equipment that I had yet to visit. I went over to see what Keith Vertees, WA0ZSB (ex-KC0NRM), was operating. He was running a simple 2-meter transceiver.

Actually, there was nothing "simple" about it. Although there was nothing particularly exotic about the transceiver itself, Keith had built a completely self-contained station around it. The transceiver was in a box that also contained batteries (and a tape player). He could switch back and forth between a ground plane antenna and a "tape measure" Yagi antenna that he'd built himself. Everything was portable and could be shut down, stored, moved, and set up elsewhere practically at a moment's notice.

Here in one relative newcomer was the pure essence of what I believe ham radio is supposed to be about. Keith had learned from others, come up with some ideas of his own and applied an "I-can-do-it" attitude. The result was his completely portable station, ideal for emergency use.

In fact I was impressed by everything I saw that day. I never ran into the "clenched-jaw" operators I had feared I would encounter. No one told me to get the hell out of the way, even though I did trip over tent pegs and feed lines, and, of course, that row of folding chairs.

I could not detect any hint of social strata, hierarchy, clique or group of "good ol' boys." Extra class licensees operated side by side with Technicians. Eleven-year-olds operated next to seventy-year-olds.

And everything worked!

On that happy note I figured it was time to leave. I found Ray Martin, K0WC, and Ron Ochu, KO0Z, thanked them and told them I'd had a great time. I waved good bye to the radio operators and the picnickers.

As I climbed into my car I heard Ray call, "Come back for dinner! We're having bratwurst!"

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 e-mail, [email protected].

© 2003 American Radio Relay League

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