The Amateur Amateur: A Wealth of Possibilities

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
May 25, 2004

I know what Amateur Radio is. I just can't think of a simple way to explain it.

What do you say when someone asks, "What is Amateur Radio?"

My guess is that you give some brief overall description and then start describing what interests you the most. Or maybe you skip the general stuff and jump right into your favorite part.

"It's about . . .

talking to people all over the world."

looking for hidden transmitters."

getting together for Field Day."

earning my Worked All States award or DXCC."

When someone asks me that question, I never seem to know what to say. A million answers flood my brain, and I just stand there looking like they've asked me to solve a complicated physics problem. Oh, I know what Amateur Radio is; I just can't think of a simple way to explain it to someone.

PSK31 station

My station running in PSK31 mode; Let's call it a work in progress.

I have not yet settled into some comfortable niche and stuck with it. I'm still fascinated by many aspects of the hobby--too many of them, in fact. Almost every time I read an article in QST, I find myself saying, "I'd like to try that!"

There are half-finished (and half-started) projects all over my house. If we begin the tour in my garage, you'll see that my car and my wife Nancy's car have dualband Amateur Radio transceivers in them. At first glance, you'd think that these were completed projects, but, face it, is any mobile setup ever really finished? They work. They do what I want them to do. But there is always this nagging feeling that there should be more.

Also standing in the garage is a ladder. We will use it to climb up to the roof where we will see my antennas. Nancy and I have spent a lot of time up here. Our neighbors have seen us erect and remove many strange-looking objects. We are moderately happy with what's there now. (I'm happy, because the current antennas work. Nancy is happy, because she hasn't had to help me put up any more new ones recently.) Still, there is an itch. Could we put up something better? (I already know Nancy's answer.)

Climbing down from the roof and going down to the basement (remembering to put away the ladder first), we'll make our way to my shack. There are two transceivers there. One is my primary station transceiver. The other is a 10-meter mobile rig. The 10-meter radio is part of a now-abandoned project to extend our mobile-to-mobile range. I figured out how to do that with our existing 2 meter transceivers. But I still feel that I should do something with that 10-meter radio.

Unbuilt kits

A bunch of kits waiting for the warm touch of a soldering iron.

I love my HF transceiver and have done all manner of things with it. Some of my happiest moments were when I made overseas contacts. But I have yet to really get into DXing. I've never participated in a contest. I haven't sought any awards. I've never marked off grids on a map. And I've yet to receive a single QSL card (of course, I've sent out only two.)

I don't want to go overboard with HF, but I don't feel I'm quite where I want to be either.

There is a computer sitting in my shack. I bought it for the specific purpose of doing digital modes on the amateur bands. This was another case of, "Gee! That looks interesting!" I had heard about PSK31, and after seeing a station use it last year at Field Day, I decided to give it a try. With only a minor hiccough or two I managed to connect the computer to my HF transceiver and make several PSK31 contacts (including one of my two DX contacts). It has been fun, but it has not become an all-consuming passion. Let's consider this one a work in progress.

Now let's move on to a case where my interests and Nancy's overlap. I really, really want to understand electronics better. I want to be able to take something apart, look at its guts and know precisely how it works. (Actually, I'd settle for knowing "more or less" how it works.) Nancy would simply like to build a working radio. Although she hasn't said it in so many words, I'm pretty sure she'd like to know what makes it tick as well.

Pair of batteries

The beginnings of an emergency power project.

This brings us to the field of kit building. Theoretically, that should satisfy both our needs. Sadly, though, our initial attempts were very unsatisfying. Although we've both vowed not to quit, the urge to try again has never been strong enough to overcome inertia. Several unbuilt kits remain in the basement--more undone projects!

Ah, and then there is ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service). I belong to the local group, and I am active. But even here there are so many potential paths to take that it makes my head spin. I've made a start at setting up my station for emergency power, but I haven't finished that one yet. I've started to put together a jump bag, but it has a long way to go before it could be considered useful. I've taken some training (the three Amateur Radio Emergency Communications courses), but there is so much more to learn that I hardly know where to begin. And in what field should I specialize? Traffic handling? Net control? Field work?

There are other aspects of Amateur Radio that also have caught my attention--including Morse code (CW), Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS), Amateur Television (ATV), packet radio and more What should I do? Decisions! Decisions!

By now you've probably become convinced that I have some form of attention deficit disorder. I could counter by saying that I'm a "radio renaissance man." But the truth is that I'm just a kid who has wandered into the Amateur Radio candy store and is bedazzled by the possibilities.

I've concluded that what makes Amateur Radio hard to pin down in words is that it represents such a vast world of possibilities, and I've yet to explore nearly enough of them.

Glitches cartoon

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].

© 2004 American Radio Relay League

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