The Amateur Amateur: Field Day: An Etude in Three Movements

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
July 5, 2007

Having made no Field Day plans of my own, I asked Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, if I could tag along with him. Steve is the Emergency Coordinator for St Louis County ARES®. He was going to visit several sites around the St Louis County, Missouri area to say hello and promote ARES. I said that if he’d let me, I would follow him around, hand out promotional buttons and take lots of pictures of him. I guess I caught him at a good moment because he said yes.

SLSRC gathering

The St. Louis & Suburban Radio Club site. Eight men and a radio.

Phineas Henshaw, K0KMA

K0KMA and his vehicle. Note that he is wearing one of my buttons.

NAREA batteries

The Northwest Amateur Radio & Electronics Association site. Some of the many marine batteries they had on hand.

SLARC tent

The St. Louis Amateur Radio Club site. Tents and strange antennas.

Steve and I met at a restaurant on Saturday morning. He had worked the night shift and he needed an infusion of caffeine before heading to the first site on his list. It was clear to me that he was somewhat sleep deprived, since his responses to me had little to do with what I said to him. Little by little though, he seemed to grasp where he was, why he was there and what I was saying. When he started talking in complete sentences, I knew that he was ready to hit the road.

Before leaving the restaurant, however, we ran into Fred Langeneckert, W0UX. Fred had once been the Missouri Section Emergency Coordinator. He told us an amusing story about visiting a Field Day site years earlier. The site’s manager wanted to earn extra points by sending a message to the SEC, but didn’t grasp that it should be sent to the SEC by radio, not merely handed to him. Fred explained the rules and then accommodated the site manager by getting on a radio and accepting the message. That was one message that barely had to travel any distance at all.

The first Field Day site Steve wanted to visit was that of the St. Louis & Suburban Radio Club. It was at the park he had expected, but not in the specific location within the park that he had anticipated. Take note, because this became a recurring theme throughout the day. Steve and I signed in, and I began handing out promotional buttons.

Just a note here on the buttons. I make them up myself. I give them out at hamfests and anywhere else that Amateur Radio operators gather. At the SLSRC Field Day site, I was handing them out blindly, not really paying attention, when Rebecca Carroll, KC9CIJ, stated she already had one. I focused on her and realized who she was. “Of course you do,” I said lamely, realizing that I’d probably given her several over the years. There are just over 2000 hams in the greater St. Louis area, but it seems like I’ve given away tens of thousands of the buttons. I should hear comments like Rebecca’s far more often, but usually people accept the button, read it, smile, and say “Thank you” as if they’d never seen one before. Either there is a constant turnover of hams in the area or their memories aren’t very good.

Buttons aside, the first things that struck me when we arrived at SLSRC’s site was the tall mast with impressive antennas at the top, and the nasty clouds heading our way.

Ah, the weather. From the forecast I had figured that it would be hot and muggy or that it would rain like crazy. As it turned out, both guesses were correct. And somehow I was always in an exposed area every time it rained.

But back to the St. Louis & Suburban Radio Club site. When we arrived I saw Steve Schmitz, W0SJS, logging CW messages on a laptop computer. Another person was logging the same messages (or perhaps just copying them down on paper), and of course someone else was actually operating the transceiver. At that time it was the only radio in operation. Things had not yet gotten into full swing.

Someone was gamely trying to get an older model transceiver to work, but couldn’t get anything to come out of the speaker. There was no manual and no one there was familiar with the rig. At one point there were eight people trying to make the radio work. I don’t know whether or not anyone succeeded.

I spent a while chatting with Phineas Henshaw, K0KMA, and taking pictures of his radio-packed van. We seemed to have a couple of changes of season during the conversation, with sweltering heat and bugs giving way to cool breezes and light sprinkles, and then the bugs and mugginess returning. Phineas was such an interesting fellow, though, that I hardly noticed.

I wandered around some more and found that the huge mast was not the only place where there were antennas. There was at least one semi-invisible wire running between trees, and more were being added all the time. They were so hard to see that I wondered if any of them actually touched. The sky darkened ominously as Bill Carroll, KC9CIK, struggled to get one wire antennas into a tree, so I decided to give him a hand.

That’s when the deluge began.

Most everyone ran for cover, but Bill and I were stuck out in the open hauling on the end of a rope. As Bill tied the rope around the trunk of a tree I felt obligated to point out that we were standing in the rain, under a tree that had a long metal wire attached to it. Bill looked up, gave a quick nod, and hastily finished tying the rope. Then we ran like hell.

Lightening did not strike, but we were thoroughly drenched by the time we reached the main pavilion. I don’t know about Bill, but I never really got dry after that.

When the rain let up Steve suggested that we move on to the next site.

That was much easier said than done, even with detailed directions. The Northwest Amateur Radio and Electronics Association had apparently held its Field Day event in the same park in Bridgeton, Missouri for a number of years. It was located in the middle of a subdivision, but in recent years the subdivision had been eradicated due to expansion of the nearby airport. The park was still there, but there were very few houses left (none inhabited). Unfortunately, many street signs had also disappeared, which made finding the park somewhat difficult.

Eventually, though, we did find it. Steve and I signed in, and once again I handed out promotional buttons.

Someone asked, "What would you like to drink?" As I was still soaking wet I was about to decline, but went ahead and accepted a Sprite anyway. It was starting to get muggy again.

I chatted with Tom Vogel, WA0KGU, and found out that he was the owner of the infamous porcupine car. It’s called that because it has literally dozens of antennas on it and vaguely resembles a porcupine. My column Hanging Around the ARES Table featured a picture of it.

There were many marine batteries at the NAREA Field Day site. I was told that the club wasn’t going to use a generator, but instead would rely on batteries during the entire Field Day event. They had done so last year and had run every battery flat, so this year they had procured even more. They had more marine batteries than I had seen anywhere outside of a submarine.

I was impressed with the equipment at the site and the level of technical expertise of the club members, but eventually it was time to move on to the third and final site.

The St. Louis Amateur Radio Club had set up its Field Day site in Creve Coeur Lake Park. It’s a very large place and we had difficulty finding the correct pavilion. As I said, this was a recurring theme. We kept pulling over wherever we saw a large gathering, but Steve would say, “Nope, no antennas. That can’t be it.”

Eventually, though, we were able to find the SLARC Field Day site. Steve parked and headed for the pavilion. I had just started unloading my cameras and buttons when the sky burst open and I got drenched yet again. That was the other recurring theme for the day.

As with the other Field Day sites I saw a number of familiar faces. In fact, I had seen Ed Harris, KC0UKR, and Roland Kramer, W0RL, at the SLSRC site as well. I guess that, like Steve and I, they wanted to see what was happening at several sites.

I gave away a bunch more buttons. It’s what I do.

The organizers at the St. Louis Amateur Radio Club site had made a big effort to pick up extra points. They had a display explaining what was happening. They had ARRL brochures. They had operated on several offbeat modes. And they were extremely happy to see us. Well, they were happy to see Steve. No one got any extra points because I showed up.

Radios were humming in the main pavilion and in two tents (more wires in the trees). I saw some odd looking antennas, including one that was clearly waiting for a satellite to come over the horizon.

Once again I was offered something to drink, but this time I declined. I was so waterlogged that I was beginning to grow moss on my north side.

Ed Harris lamented that he had yet to see an actual portable emergency station. Ed likes to build such things and is a champion of the cause. If you have any kind of small, portable box, Ed will find a way to put a complete, self-contained emergency radio station in it, power and all. Of course Ed had a couple such contraptions in his truck, so I wandered over to take a look. Steve soon joined us, and it happened that he had an emergency station in his truck that was modeled after one of Ed’s.

I didn’t say much. I have all the components of a field station, and have actually set up in the field, but my equipment isn’t built into a nice compact easy-to-carry package. That’s on my RSN (Real Soon Now) list.

Well, that wrapped out our Field Day excursion. Steve drove me back to the restaurant to pick up my car. Once inside my car I detected a peculiar dampish odor. It took me a minute to figure out that it was me.

I headed home with the idea of throwing all my clothes into the washing machine. As for me, I planned to climb into the drier.

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].

© 2007 American Radio Relay League

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