The Amateur Amateur: A Tale of Three Tents, Part 2

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
December 9, 2007

So, where was I? Oh yes, our local ARES group had decided to hold a field station demonstration. Everything looked fine until the day before the event, when the weather forecast was suddenly changed

Canopy over Gary's station

My station under the second canopy. Or was it the third?

Gary operating PSK31

While not fighting bees or dropping hot dogs, I operated PSK31.

KC0ULG's station

The SSTV station operated by Cece Rongey, KC0ULG.

One of KC0UKR's stations

One of the magical boxes put together by Ed Harris, KC0UKR.

Okay, just for the record it was three canopies, not tents. When I started looking for a shelter for my field station I didn’t know the difference. To me they were all tents.

The weatherman switched the outlook from clear to iffy. I don’t know how else to describe it. It might be clear, it might rain or there might be a plague of locusts. Basically the new forecast was a lot of double-talk amounting to the fact that the weatherman really had no idea what was going to happen. Not knowing what else to do, we decided to go ahead with our demonstration.

It was overcast but dry on the morning of the event. Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, our Emergency Coordinator, had booked a large picnic area in Queeny Park in St Louis County. I arrived about an hour before we were scheduled to start and found that the situation was already controlled mayhem. Someone had stolen our event sign mere minutes after it had been erected. Runners from a charity event were using the same pathway that we were using to get to the picnic area. And all of our participants had forgotten that we had selected a simplex frequency to use at the site and were struggling to hit a hard-to-reach repeater.

Lesson Five: Sometimes 2 Meters Beats 40 Meters

I started unloading my small, overstuffed car. I felt that I’d been very shrewd in purchasing a two-wheeled dolly, but after a dozen trips up and down the hills and valleys between the parking lot and the picnic area, I didn’t feel quite so clever. My first lesson from the event was that my field equipment needed to be much more organized and compact. I was exhausted before I even started putting together my station.

The first order of business was to find Chuck Wehking, N0EIS, as he was going to set up a 40 meter antenna for me. I found him and asked where I should locate my station. We dickered over the ideal site for a while, and then started putting things together.

My next task was to find Cece Rongey, KC0ULG. She had a tent (okay, a canopy) she was willing to share, and I really wanted to be underneath one. If the sun came out, I needed to be in the shade, and if it rained, well, enough said.

Cece was still willing to share her canopy, but was dismayed that I had set up my station in a low area. That would be fine for a 40 meter Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS) operation like mine, but she planned to operate on 2 meters. She opted instead to erect her station, and hence her canopy, at the top of a rise.

Chuck’s antenna, a strange concoction of bamboo, orange warning tape and invisible wire, was already in place, so I decided not to try to relocate my station. I found Steve and asked him if another canopy was available. As it happened, there was.

The spare canopy was a clever device that fit into a container about the size of a golf club bag. Once out of the bag, the framework unfolded into the desired shape, and all we had to do was put the canvas top over it. Steve, a couple of volunteers and I put up the canopy over the picnic table where I had placed all of my equipment. It only took a couple of minutes. I was very impressed with the design and made a mental note to look into purchasing one. Surely I could find room in my car for something the size of a golf club bag.

Lesson Six: “Pardon Me, But Could You Help Out a Fellow Amateur Radio Operator Who’s Down On His Luck?

Right. I was finally ready to go, and only slightly late in getting started. I had made arrangements with folks at Jackson County ARES (Kansas City, Missouri) to make contact on 40 meters using PSK31. I heard nothing on the prearranged frequency, so I began transmitting. I made a few contacts in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but did not hear anyone from Jackson County.

I hadn’t been operating for very long when Steve told me he had to take away the canopy. It appeared that it belonged to Craig Klimczak, K4LSU, and he had just arrived with his own load of gear. With great reluctance I stopped operating and helped move the canopy over to Craig’s location.

“I hate to ask, but is there a backup backup canopy?” I asked Steve.

Steve frowned, but nodded. Five minutes later we had moved the canopy sheltering the promotional table over to my table. I was back in business.

And then it started to rain.

Steve hastily threw a tarpaulin over the promotional material and headed for cover. A couple of people who had been wandering around the site suddenly found my canopy-covered station very interesting. They were welcome, but the bees, which also sought shelter under the canopy, were not. I don’t know if they were criticizing my operating skills or what, but they would not leave me alone.

The rain definitely discouraged people from attending our demonstration, but in some ways it was beneficial. Had it been raining before we began, we probably would have cancelled the event. As it was, we unexpectedly learned that we were capable of operating in inclement weather. Every station was sheltered in some way. We were fortunate that it was a mild rain and that there was no wind. Had it been a driving rain our canopies wouldn’t have kept us or our equipment dry. So there was another lesson, free courtesy of Mother Nature.

Lesson Seven: The “Billion Bubble Beverage” Really Does Make Things Better

I had not yet managed to contact Jackson County ARES, so I decided to take a break and get some lunch. (I later found out that the weather was much worse in western Missouri, and lightning had driven the Jackson County guys off the air.) We had hot dogs, chips and an assortment of Vess soda. For some reason, standing there watching the rain drip from the edge of the canopy, it was an absolutely delicious meal. I had seconds, and probably would’ve continued scarfing down wieners had I not dropped a half-eaten one and gotten mustard all over my go-bag. Luckily I had wet wipes and was able to clean up the mess, but I still mourn for that lost hot dog.

The rain finally let up, so I decided to tour the site and see what the rest of the participants had brought.

Craig had enhanced his canopy to include sides, a barbeque grill, a television set and his family. He really had all the comforts of home. I was quite impressed that his canopy was now truly weatherproof and renewed my mental note to look into getting one just like it.

Now that the rain had subsided Steve set up a SSTV station and was exchanging pictures with Cece.

Jim Conley, N0OBG, was operating something so complicated and technical that I can’t even begin to describe it. I think he had linked the air waves, the phone system, the Internet and possibly even the vocalizations of dolphins into a single massive net.

Ed Harris, KC0UKR, is our champion of compact portable field stations. If it’s a container and can be carried by one person, it’s likely that he’s has built a station into it. Ed had an assortment of impressive, completely self-contained stations on display.

Steve Schmitz, W0SJS, was stoically keying away in CW mode, while nearby Mark Biernacki, KB5YZY was communicating on the 75 meter band. At one point he handed the mike to me and said, “It’s for you.” It was, indeed, someone from Jackson County ARES trying to reach me, but we only managed to exchange call signs before the ionosphere stopped cooperating.

I dashed back to my own station and tried once again to raise Jackson County ARES, but was not successful. I still didn’t know about the lightning storms in Kansas City.

I noticed that there was an annoying tick-tick-tick sound every time I transmitted a PSK 31 signal. I didn’t know what it was until a second symptom developed, which was that my transceiver stopped transmitting. It didn’t take long to figure out that the power was rapidly running down in my battery. It had a 55 aH rating, but I was, after all, using it to power both my transceiver and my laptop computer.

Lesson Eight: Power Hogs and Hams Do Not Mix

That turned out to be a mistake. The computer was a power hog, and even a fresh fully-charged backup battery could barely handle the radio and laptop when I transmitted. I made a note in my list of lessons learned that day: Computer and transceiver -- separate power sources.

Steve decided to shut down the demonstration an hour early when he received a report that even worse weather was approaching, so we all packed up our gear and headed for home.

So, how would I rate the event? Well, we weren’t happy that we didn’t get many visitors, but there was nothing we could do about the weather. We did, however, gain some insights, learn some lessons and generally have a good time. It was also nice to see that we worked well as a team and could put together quick solutions to unexpected problems.

I discovered that I was capable of fielding a fairly complex station, which boosted my self-confidence. And, hey! I got to take home the leftover Vess soda.

Yeah, I’d say that it was a good event.

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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