The Amateur Amateur: Too Sexy for My Shack
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Sibling rivalry is extended to the arena of ham shacks.
December 19, 2001
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
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 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
"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
Chris showed me around his property. Much of the tour consisted
of him pointing out where various antennas and masts used
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
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.
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.)
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
, 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
Reluctance: Measurement of unwillingness to climb a tall tower.
What happens when you're up on that tower, and someone in the ham
shack decides to rotate the antenna.
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