The Amateur Amateur: So Long and Thanks for All the Cookies

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
November 29, 2006

Girl Scouts and ham radio go together almost as well as Girl Scouts and cookies.

Girl Scouts operating mobile radio

Plan C was to work out of Bob's car.

Girl Scout Silver Award

The troop was working to earn the Girl Scout Silver Award.

Girl Scout cookies

A couple of boxes of Girl Scout cookies was the reward for my radio efforts.

Bob is a friend of mine from the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) group. He told me that his daughter's Girl Scout troop was studying emergency preparedness. He said that he had cooked up a little exercise for the girls and wondered if I would be willing to help.

Well, I don't have children myself, but I guess the urge to teach the young is in our genes. I immediately said that I'd be happy to help. Soon after, though, I began to wonder if I'd made the right decision. Although the exercise Bob described was very simple in nature, I was actually getting butterflies in my stomach thinking about it. It seems the urge to teach the young was quickly followed by the fear of messing up.

The exercise was set to take place on a Friday afternoon, right after the Girl Scout troop toured an emergency management facility. Bob would follow up with a short talk about Amateur Radio, then call me on a local repeater. He would have each girl get on the air and give me her name phonetically. I would respond by asking about what her troop was doing, or something equally innocuous. For ARES exercises I had found it wise to have a script ready, but frankly, I didn't know what to say to sixth and seventh-grade girls. So, I decided to just wing it.

When the day of the exercise arrived, things did not quite go as planned. If these Girl Scouts were supposed to learn about preparing for emergencies, they started getting lessons right away. The room they were going to use for the radio exercise suddenly became unavailable.

Bob switched to Plan B, which was to use his portable transceiver and hold the exercise outside on the lawn of the facility. Since the weather was mild, that should have worked. Bob had reached the repeater from that same location, using the same handheld radio many times in the past. There is, however, an unwritten law that says that your efforts will not work in the presence of an expectant audience. Bob could not reliably hit the repeater.

As a member of both ARES and of a local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), Bob fully understands that even backups fail, so he had a Plan C. He had removed the mobile radio from his car to show the girls at the end of their tour. Now he remounted the mobile in his car, verified that he could hit the repeater and talk to me, then lined up the girls to take the "communications seat." It seemed that we were finally in business.

Okay, it was a rocky start. Neither the girls nor I knew quite what to say to each other. Lauren, who, I presume, was the bravest because she was the first, said hello and I said hello back. She had spelled her name phonetically for me, so I did the same for her. The conversation died right there. Well, I'm supposed to be some kind of expert communicator, I thought to myself, so I'd better do a lot better that that.

Adrienne was next. Bob had fed me a little information about her in advance, so I knew that she had a dog. I said hello to her and mentioned that FEMA had a whole Web page about emergency preparedness for pets. I asked Suzanne about the Silver Award toward which her troop was working, and she explained it to me. Neerja seemed surprised that I could pronounce her name correctly and said that her troop had worked 50 hours with the Humane Society. Tori told me what her troop had done for Hurricane Katrina victims. And Amy filled me in on how the Bronze Award was achieved.

Before I knew it the exercise was over. I was a bit disappointed because I felt that the girls and I were finally getting in sync. Troop Leader Kathy came on the air and thanked me. Kathy is, incidentally, Bob's wife. You didn't think Bob had managed it all alone, did you?

Bob later told me, "There was a lot of excitement, confusion, giggling, and microphone fright going on."

"Yeah, same here," I responded.

Reflecting on the exercise, the first thing that struck me was that the girls had sounded downright professional. Every one of them came through firmly and clearly, and they had snapped out their names phonetically with no hesitation at all. I'm sure that Bob had either rehearsed them or written down the phonetics for them, but I've heard some veteran ham radio operators do a lot worse. The second thing that I noticed was that they adapted quickly. Yes, there was a significant pause after I asked some unexpected question, but once the reply came, it was succinct and informative. There were times when I felt like the rookie.

Anyway, I certainly got a charge out of the experience. I hope the girls felt good about it as well. And just to make sure they got something, I made out a QSL card for each of them. I received a couple of boxes of Girl Scout cookies in return.

Bob, Kathy, any time you want to do this again, I'm your man.

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].

© 2006 American Radio Relay League

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