Hamming it Up

[deck]Ham radio operators use “the original social network” to communicate with people around the world and provide aid in times of emergencies.[/deck]

At the Red Cross Center in Eugene, Oregon, a class begins in a nondescript meeting room. It’s an unlikely location for a lesson on electricity, but ham radio operators do not take up the activity for glamor or accolades. Most are drawn to the prospect of talking to people they have not and will never meet in person.

Among the students is Reena Schilt, whose grandfather introduced her to ham radio at a young age. She recalls sitting on his lap and talking to people over the radio.

“My grandpa did ham radio for fifty years. He passed away in July,” Schilt says. “He had a call sign, and I want it.”

A call sign is a special nickname in ham radio culture. Schilt plans to pursue the third and highest certification among ham radio aficionados: the extra designation, which would allow her to use microwave wavelengths—and claim her grandpa’s call sign.

“My grandpa’s name was Kermit,” she says, “So his call sign was Kerm W7BG.”

Schilt is taking the class through the Valley Radio Club in Eugene. Prospective “hammers,” or certified amateur-radio operators, must take an eight-week long training program to become “entry-level technicians,” the most basic level of certification. Once certified, they can tap radio wavelengths that aren’t used commercially, meaning the people they contact are scouring the airwaves for the same thing: a friendly chat.

“Ham radio was the original social network,” says Arnold “Matt” Dillon, the trustee of the Valley Radio Club. “I do it for personal reward. I’ve had conversations with people from all over the world.”

The club has a partnership with the Eugene Red Cross Center, which allows the hammers to use the meeting room once a week, as well as transmit from the building. They transmit from a small room called “the shack.” Inside the unassuming room, several radios can be found. A glance around the room reveals what Dillon calls “QSL cards.” They are taped to the wall in multiple columns that nearly touch the ceiling. Each has a picture and most display the country name that they came from.

“A whole group of Q signals were used in Morse code. You use the code to say something,” Dillon says. “So QSL is confirmation of contact.”

Dillon says that Valley Radio Club has made contact with every continent. He has frequently contacted hammers from South Africa, Russia, Sweden, France, Germany, Japan, and Australia.

His passion for the activity has inspired him to share it with others. He leads the eight-week training program, and emphasizes that all ages are welcome to attend. The program attracts many students who are drawn to the activity for a variety of reasons.

Fred Fawbush is currently enrolled in the class. He works for the Oregon Defense Force, which provides support during natural or man-made disasters.

“The reason we use ham radio is that too many people use Citizens’ Band, too much chatter,” Fawbush says.

Citizens’ Band radio is a form of short-distance communication that is used commercially. Operators are required to have a license and use different frequencies, eliminating the chatter that can detract from communication when Fawbush would need it most, during a disaster.

As Fawbush takes out his notebook, Dillon begins the class. The twenty students fall silent as he methodically describes electricity, explaining its tricky intricacies to his attentive class.

“It’s going to be a challenge learning the technical aspect, understanding electronics and setup,” Les Holdiman says before beginning the class. Holdiman is pursuing a ham certification out of curiosity and a desire to talk to people.

And while talking to people is one of the main draws for many new hammers, that’s not its only purpose. Dillon says that one of the tenets of ham radio is to “provide public service, particularly related to emergency communications.”

“I’ve used my radio several times to bring aid to people who had no other means of communication,” he says.

A few years ago, fiber optic cables were obstructed in the Mohawk Valley, cutting off an emergency dispatch center from its residents. Dillon bridged the gap by establishing radio communication from a nearby fire station.

“All emergency calls went to the fire station, and I relayed them down to another 911 center,” he says. “We were at operation from 2 p.m. to 9 a.m.”

On another occasion, a troupe of boy scouts was camping in the Cascades when one suffered an eye injury. Dillon connected the scouts, who had no other form of communication, to a doctor.

In order to draw more participants to the activity of working with ham radios, the Valley Radio Club sets up a portable radio station in a Wal-Mart parking lot each June. One year, a father and son stopped by the demonstration and were immediately hooked. Paul and Matt Grimes, respectively, shared their newfound passion for the activity with others.

“The father ended up revitalizing Springfield ham radio,” says Dillon. “His son started a program in [Cal Young] Middle School.”

There are even contests among hammers. Dillon says that almost every weekend, hammers compete to contact as many different regions as possible using the default language in ham radio, English.

“This is something you can do off the grid, communicate with people, and it’s fun,” Schilt says.

She has two years to earn the extra designation before someone else can claim her grandpa’s call sign. When she does, W7BG will again fill the airwaves, searching for someone to talk to.



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