The Amateur Amateur: Too Sexy for My Shack

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
December 19, 2001

Sibling rivalry is extended to the arena of ham shacks.

Chris's 100' tower

100-foot tower, self-assembled.

My shack is not very impressive. It is tremendously messy--in true ham tradition--but beneath the debris there is not much to see. I don't have a lot of meters. I have no amplifiers. There is a genuine antique Morse key, but that actually belongs to my wife (her grandfather was a railroad telegrapher). There are a couple of computers, but they are ancient leftovers with clock speeds of about 2 Hz and have nary a byte of ham software on them. I have a couple of "boat anchors"--gifts from a friend who was cleaning out his basement. One of them is an oscilloscope. I turned it on once. It made a loud SNAP! sound, and I've been terrified to go near it ever since. The other device is an ancient receiver of some sort, but apparently its plugs are designed only to accept bananas.

I, did, however, recently visit a real ham shack. It belongs to my brother, Chris, K1KC--an Extra class operator and my primary mentor. His beautiful house is located on a few acres of land just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. His property features very tall pine trees and huge slabs of granite. I was surprised to see only one radio tower, but Chris explained that severe winds had brought down most of his antenna farm and that he was in the process of rebuilding. He told me that the imposing tower next to his house was, in fact, only partially complete. He said there were still several more sections to add, but it already looked pretty tall to me.

tower sections on ground

Tower parts waiting for construction.

I jokingly asked if he were trying to get his antenna above the height of the surrounding pine trees. (Hint: Never joke with a fanatic about his hobby. That's exactly what he intended to do.) He further surprised me by telling me that he had erected the whole tower by himself. I couldn't fathom that and asked how he accomplished it.

"It's just a matter of getting the mechanical advantage," he replied. I could only assume that he knew some secrets of leverage that would have amazed Archimedes.

Chris showed me around his property. Much of the tour consisted of him pointing out where various antennas and masts used to be prior to the windstorm. He showed me a roll of chicken wire that had at one time been spread out across a huge slab of granite. I wondered why he thought the granite slab might try to escape, but he explained that the chicken wire was part of an elaborate counterpoise scheme.

giant roll of cable

A roll of coax looking for a job.

He pointed out an eclectic array of antennas on the roof. He showed me satellite dishes, antenna parts, sections of masts, and numerous other large objects, all waiting to be used or scrapped. I began to understand how he had earned the nickname "Junkman."

Chris showed me all of the anchor points for the guy wires holding up his tower and told me how much each of them weighed. He had poured the concrete himself, he said. The only thing he hadn't done by himself was to haul in the satellite dishes.

satellite dishes

Dishes waiting for a job description.

There was a small barn behind his house. Inside were all kinds of disassembled masts, antennas and enough cable to run a transatlantic phone line. A canvas bag contained a surplus Desert Storm easy-to-assemble field antenna. "It came with a hammer and instructions on how to smash it to pieces, so it wouldn't fall into enemy hands," he said.

Chris's ham shack was on the top floor of his house. It also was in the process of being rebuilt. He was trying to decide whether to arrange the radios and controls so that one person could operate them or whether to spread them out so that several operators could run at the same time. (Chris enjoys contesting and sometimes invites other hams to operate from his shack. He's also an air traffic controller, so I had no doubt at all that he could have operated everything simultaneously without any assistance.)

Chris's mult-station

Shack picture.

I recognized one or two items in Chris's shack as being radios, but much of his equipment baffled me. I was used to clearly labeled consumer products. Much of what I saw sat in open racks and cabinets with no doors or sides. The words "unfinished" and "experimental" came to mind. After I found out that much of the stuff was for power amplification, I added the word "dangerous." It was beginning to look less like a ham operator's shack and more like Nikola Tesla's laboratory.

Now came the card show. Chris dragged out several photo albums, none of which contain photos. They were all crammed with QSL cards. I was glad that Chris only pointed out cards from hams in Missouri; since I live near St Louis, he must have figured that I might know some of the people. I didn't. In fact, I'd never even heard of most of the towns. (Where is Mosquito Itch? Where is Fungus County?)

I had mixed feelings after seeing my brother Chris's operation. I'm enthusiastic about ham radio but will never have a shack as exotic as his. Nor do I expect to ever know as much about radio as he does. Since he was my mentor, I had several questions for him. He had a ready answers, but his responses were all in technobabble using terms like reluctance1 and decapitance2, so I came away more confused than ever.

So much of Amateur Radio still seems unfathomable, and I wonder some days if I'll ever be anything more than just an amateur amateur.


1Reluctance: Measurement of unwillingness to climb a tall tower.

2Decapitance: What happens when you're up on that tower, and someone in the ham shack decides to rotate the antenna.

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.

© 2001 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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