The Amateur Amateur: Hanging Around the ARES Table

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
April 21, 2005

Hamfests look very different when you’re stuck in one place staffing a booth or table. And the overly loud announcements over the PA system seem to come every couple of minutes.

There was a time when I didn’t go to many hamfests. My wife Nancy and I might attend the largest one in the St. Louis area--Winterfest--but few others. We’d stay long enough to do a light scan of most of the vendor tables, skipping those that were heavily congested. I might buy an adaptor or two and perhaps some cable. I’d say hello to any friends I encountered, then Nancy and I would leave and go find someplace to eat. Our stay at the hamfest rarely lasted more than 30 minutes.

Ah, but that was before I became involved with the St. Louis County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). Since joining, I’ve often volunteered to help staff the ARES table at hamfests. On one occasion the Emergency Coordinator (EC) showed up looking decidedly ill. He stayed long enough to drop off the promotional material, then said, “Take over, please!” and rushed out, clutching his stomach. That was my introduction to running a table at a hamfest. I was fortunate that several other ARES team members showed up to lend a hand.

Staffing a table has given me a very different view of hamfests. For one thing, I get to see the events from beginning to end, not just the middle. I arrive before the doors open--and why do these things start so early?--and depart after they close.

Hamfest just before the doors open

Before the hamfest opens is always the best time to buy.

Very quickly I learned that if I want to buy something, I’d better do so before the doors open. I probably won’t have an opportunity to get away from the ARES table for very long once the hamfest officially starts. Time seems to zip by when I have actual duties to perform, and for some reason half the vendors always pack up and leave long before closing time.

Since the hamfests always start so early I usually need a little fuel to help me through the day. There’s almost always a snack bar, so I’ll go see what food is available. This is usually what happens.

“Would you like grease, fat or calories?” the snack bar attendant will ask.

“Er, I think I’ll just have caffeine, thanks,” I’ll reply.

Leaving behind the smells of hot dogs and doughnuts, I’ll return to the ARES table to find it surrounded by friends and acquaintances. This is great, but it’s dismaying to see some shy stranger looking for an opening to see what is at our table. Unable to penetrate the blockade, the stranger inevitably departs after a few minutes.

I’m as sociable as anyone else, and a hamfest is certainly a social event. I don’t want to tell friends, “Don’t hang around the table!” I do want to talk to them. But how do we table staffers balance the need to chat with our buds and with other ARES members for that matter with the need to attract new folks? ’Tis a dilemma.

Perhaps what we need to do is set up a second table nearby, something like a mini visitors lounge--with nice comfy chairs behind it.

Max, K0AZV with two hats

Max wore two hats that day--don’t ask me why. You can see part of one of his boat anchors at the bottom left.

Hamfests look very different when I’m stationary. Instead of swimming through the crowd like a salmon going upstream, I can calmly watch the flow of humanity sweep past the table. Sooner or later some ARRL representatives will swim, uh, stop by and say hello. Often I will see the same people go by over and over again, perhaps looking for some bargain they missed during their first eleven passes through the room.

If someone I don’t immediately recognize stops at our table, the very first thing I do is search for their call sign. A name tag is always going to say Bill or Steve, which is no help at all. A baseball cap with a call sign is much more informative. Sometimes the call sign will ring a bell and I’ll think, “Oh yeah, that’s the guy who is supposed to be a whiz at packet radio!”

More often, though, what will go through my head is, “I know that call sign, but I can’t remember why.”

Perhaps the most annoying things at hamfests are the public announcements. They seem to occur every two minutes, last for a minute and a half and are unfailingly loud. The public address systems sound like they were designed for use by generals directing battlefield exercises. Practically every conversation I’ve had at a hamfest has been put on hold at least once while some over-amplified announcement rattled my teeth.

Not that I mind all announcements. Two of them informed me that I had won door prizes. Both times they were you-have-to-be-present-to-win prizes, so there was a definite advantage in staying all day to staff the ARES table.

Porcupine car

The antenna car: More metal sticking in the air than within the body of the vehicle.

Staying until the end of the hamfest can also have its disadvantages. It seems someone inevitably buys more than they can easily carry to their vehicle and wants help. I remember an instance when one of the ARES guys, Max Slover, K0AZV, bought a pair of ancient transceivers dirt cheap. He had been a great help at the table that day, so when he asked for assistance in lugging his new acquisitions to his vehicle I foolishly volunteered.

Well, I’m sure you know that a piece of old, heavy equipment is often referred to as a boat anchor. When I picked up--tried to pick up--one of Max’s recent acquisitions, I suddenly realized why it was called a boat anchor. That baby was heavy enough to anchor an aircraft carrier. Nonetheless I dragged it out to Max’s truck, which, he neglected to tell me, was several blocks away. But it’s hard to be sore with a guy who wears two hats at the same time.

No St Louis-area hamfest is complete unless the antenna car is in the parking lot. I don’t know who owns it, but this vehicle sports a couple dozen mag mount antennas. Who knows? Perhaps its owner sells antennas. All I can say is that there is more metal sticking up in the air than there is in the body of the car.

I once sent a photo of the antenna car to my brother Chris, K1KC, who also has numerous antennas on his vehicle. I said, “I think this fellow has you beat.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “but mine are permanent.”

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].

© 2005 American Radio Relay League

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