Improbabilities

Radio continues to be a fickle and rewarding thing.

I spent some time in Brentwood park yesterday. Threw my 20-meter dipole between some trees and tried to make contacts. Due to a national HF contest, there wasn’t much space in the good parts of the band to get a word in edgewise. Eventually, I was run out of the park by some random dude who decided to practice Tai Chi under the same tree I was using for shelter (of all the trees in the park, he picks mine).

So with the heat of the young afternoon and all the confounding factors, I folded up and went home to drink water and not cause a scene.

Due to the excessive heat today, I didn’t get out until near sunset. Lacking any time to do a real setup, I made a last minute scramble and went to Northwest Park which sits in a low-lying area of town (it was a quarry once), where I clamped my poorly-performing vertical antenna to a picnic table, tuned it to 40-meters (because 20-meters was already closed), warmed up my radio, and called CQ.

WIthin a short time, I actually got an answer. I don’t work 40m much, so I’m not used to the higher noise level (especially with the nearby band of thunderstorms). But the one contact I made was with N9LVY in Illinois. We got enough info through the noise to qualify as an actual contact. Worth it.

So the takeaway lesson is that you can make the perfect setup in the perfect location, and you won’t get anywhere. But make a last ditch effort with improbable odds and — by damn — you get a message through.

This affirms to me that radio is exactly like fishing.

Parallax

When I’m playing with my radio in a public park, I try to make sure that I am physically safe by being aware of my surroundings while my headphones are on, and that I’m always presenting the right image that I’m just a guy doing a thing that’s totally natural and nonthreatening. It usually gets me by. But sometimes people walk past and bear inquisitive frowns as they’re trying to figure out just what I’m doing with all that gear. They usually lighten up when I explain that it’s amateur radio, and no it’s not spy gear, no it’s not a police scanner, no it’s not like on CB, and so on.

But a few weeks ago I had an occasion that made me stop what I was doing and examine my appearance a little more closely in an unexplored dimension. A family was walking past me on their way back to their car from spending time in the park. This little girl about 9 or 10 asked her parents what I was doing; they didn’t know and couldn’t answer. I was in the process of throwing a lead weight into a tree and pulling down the rope to work on raising my dipole antenna. As I’m tugging on the loose end under the tree, she walked up to me and, half curious, half apprehensive, she wanted to know what I was doing.

I turned to look at her, and i could see her family behind her already at their car; they were all apprehensively looking too. As I was mid-sentence explaining that I was raising an antenna for my radio, it occurred to me exactly what it looked like; here’s this white guy in a public park stringing a rope in a tree, and there’s this black child and her family wanting to know just what I was doing. I pushed out the rest of the explanation and smiled as warmly as I could until she and her family were satisfied that I was not a threat.

Never in my life would I ever have thought that there could be a racial component in amateur radio. I never would have thought that, if overlooked, it could ever be misconstrued as blatant racism. Never. I go out in order to pursue the hobby and hope to pique the interest of passers-by so they’ll want to know more, but, as in anything else in the public sphere, there are images and interpretations that must be considered so nothing ever escalates to a bad place, especially in these heated times.

Be careful out there, friends. Consider your actions and your appearances; like radio waves, they can transmit farther than you intend. Above all, be sure to mind your manners in public and be friendly — and look friendly — to everyone you can. We are all humans.

A Day In the Field

If anybody’s keeping tabs on my good decisions for this year, you can add another to the list: I participated in the ARRL Field Day exercise this past weekend, and it was time well-spent.

Lighted sign and knife switch, ready to burn like an Olympic flame during the event.

Field Day is a 24-hour contest where amateur radio clubs and ad-hoc groups go into the field (or anywhere that’s not their permanent operating station) to raise their antennas and run their radios on emergency power while making as many contacts as possible for points. The goal of Field Day is to help hams stretch their legs and train to operate in adverse conditions, ostensibly to prepare for emergency communications. One of the benefits of amateur radio is reaching into or out of disaster areas in times of crisis, and Field Day is among the best ways to prove that you’re up to the task before you ever have to need it.

The Austin Amateur Radio Club set up operations in the American Red Cross office near the Mueller district in Austin. We had 3 radios running under the W5KA station callsign, all powered by the Austin Energy solar demo trailer. Overall, we made just over 300 contacts, working almost all 50 states, half of the Canadian provinces, and even some Caribbean countries like the Virgin Islands. It’s not as many contacts as most clubs, but it was a herculean effort considering the modest turnout by club members and visitors alike.

Vertical antenna for CW in white on left, 40M inverted V dipole for digital in black on right.

Primary mast on trailer with 2M Yagi, 6M Yagi, and 40M dipole which carried the bulk of our voice contacts.

Austin Energy solar demo trailer, with voice antenna mast in the background.

On a personal note, the benefit of the weekend was in the effect it had on me. It started by just showing up. I got there Saturday morning to help raise the antennas and set up the radios, and I spent the rest of the day on-site to work a handful of contacts and be with others to share knowledge with my fellow new hams and to learn a massive amount of material from the elmers running the event. I went home for a few hours overnight to sleep off the exhaustion, but came back later the following morning to continue with the group and help break down at the end of the contest.

I’ll go on record to say that the event was transformative. I participated and learned. I volunteered and helped as often as possible. I got my hands dirty and paid in sweat equity. I worked holes into my leather gloves and made use of hard hats and hammers. I got exposure to new antenna designs and learned how to jump into an on-air pileup and get a contact in the noise. I had a great opportunity to work with a body of people that was neither a corporation nor a church camp. This group serves some other purpose, and that’s a refreshing change. It’s new air to breathe.

The lessons I’m learning are paying off. Today I took my radio to the park and worked 6 contacts where usually I’d get only 1. I’m honing the craft. I’m growing. That is its own profit.

I look forward to next year’s Field Day, and hope I can get some of you to join in too.

A big and heartfelt thank you to members Jeff, Lew, Stu, Bob, and everybody else whose names and calls I can’t remember who ran the event and made it work fabulously despite the hardships. Finding creative solutions to difficult problems is the soul of engineering, and you people are filled with that living spirit. Thank you.

Broad Strokes

It’s particularly vexing to me when I see a friend or family member say or post something that puts down “the gays”. It paints a broad brush stroke over a whole group of humans and robs a piece of their dignity.

I’m not gay…but I’m also not straight. I’m open-minded. The sort of talk above exasperates me to hear, because what if the love of my life isn’t some heteronormative female? What if I completely switch teams? What if I love lots of different kinds humans all at the same time? Then that brush would paint over me as well.

In my younger days, I used to make jokes about fat chicks, and it always confused me how many physically fit women within earshot would fire back their disapproval of my jokes. My thinking at the time was “well, you’re not fat, so why do you care?” The answer is that anyone can become fat, and then the jokes would cover them as well.

It’s just bad form to put down a group of people because of what they are and what they do. That’s weak sauce; lowest-common-denominator talk show monologue humor, even on its best day.

Please consider what you say and how it lifts up or puts down those who know you. We affect each other in ways we may yet understand.

To Pam, Ever Steadfast

On Sunday, the world lost the wonder of Pam Blackmon-Bailey. After a lifelong struggle with her own body, she now rests in peace. She leaves behind her husband Craig and three teenage daughters.

Pam was one of my best friends during my time at OBU and one of the reasons I moved to Greensboro those many years ago. We met through mutual friends and over time I was moved to think of her as an amazing woman. From her steady inquisitiveness to her intuitive insights, she was always curious about other people’s lives and troubles, and when she found a solution, she insisted on helping you to find your resolution. She cared. She was inquisitive and steadfast.

I never knew a single soul who found wrong in her.

The last time I saw her was one whirlwind weekend in 1999. She was visiting her sister Stephanie in Little Rock and invited me to come up from Texarkana to hang out with her and her then-boyfriend Craig. We hung out and watched movies, went to bookstores, drank coffee, made dinner, the usual young adult stuff. I went home that Sunday not really knowing that was our last time within hugging range.

I take it for granted that most of my old friends, the ones who I cherish in memory and history, are on social media and that I keep in touch on a semi-regular basis. But I overlook the ones who aren’t there by choice until it’s too late.

You never know where life will take you. But you can know for certain who it will take you from. Don’t let them out of your sight.