Hobbies can make a difference in one’s life. I thought I would offer some reflections on many decades of involvement with activities outside of work. The first is ham radio. I have been an amateur radio operator for over forty years. Here are some reflections for my ham radio friends:
Amateur Radio is more than dancing gauges and wisps of solder smoke – it’s about friendships and life lessons. Many of us have made friendships that allow us to have conversations that move from oscillator circuits to favorite hiking trips and then back to Sunspot cycles. Here are some examples of my life lesson.
Community: College is a weird time. You are exposed to all sorts of new ideas – good and bad. But I had a place to hang out with friends at the University of Illinois’ club station, W9YH. It was a great club and a refuge from all the stress and challenges of student life. Hams always seemed to support and encourage each other and these are especially gracious qualities during times of loneliness and change. This sense of a distinctive community still provides comfort.
Keeping up with technology: I thought radio teletype (RTTY) was high tech and then I experimented with packet radio using a 300 baud acoustic modem and cut tennis balls for the phone cradle. This experimentation moved to a range of digital modes including APRS for monitoring cliff temperatures and on a kite-lifted weather station. I am always several steps behind the latest technology, but ham radio keeps pulling me out of my trenches.
Unique friends: I have met remarkable people through ham radio. Early in my professional career, when I moved to upstate New York, I walked around my neighborhood looking for antennas. I saw a Yagi perched on a 60 ft. tower and knocked on the door. From this introduction, I made a new friend with Henry who learned about World War I when the bells of his village church started ringing. When he asked why they were ringing, he was told that his Germany was now in a war with France. He told me about how he looked for shiny rocks to make "cat whisker" rectifiers and listened to the handful of stations in Europe during the beginning of the 20 th century.
Public service: From traffic control to tornado spotting, ham radio has been an entry point that let me help people. One unique public service event was monitoring overpasses for people dropping pumpkins during Halloween. I did this with a senior executive at my company. He shared his World War II navigation stories and our ham radio friendship became a great equalizer. Bike race monitoring, parade assistance, air show communications, and Field Day have all been peculiar mixes into my everyday life.
Goal setting: Getting my Extra Class license taught me about setting goals and working hard to accomplish them. I struggled to learn the 5 word per minute Code needed to get my Novice. After I earned my license and made those shaky first contacts, I made the arbitrary goal of getting my Extra Class license within one year. I worked really hard to learn the required 20 word per minute Morse Code and radio theory within that time. I took long, scary train trips to downtown Chicago sketching Colpitts oscillators on the train journey as I prepared to take my FCC exams. I finally passed my Extra before my self-imposed goal and it is still one of the accomplishments of which I am most proud. Goal setting remains an important element of both my professional and personal life.
Unexpected connections: I’m a mechanical engineer/industrial designer but having an electrical background comes in handy. On my first day at my new job in Venezuela, I volunteered to set up their base SSB station. Early in my careerhroughout my career, I have frequently needed my practical electronics skills to build control systems.
Hidden Superpowers: Bouncing signals off the Aurora Borealis, the Moon, and all the other odd propagation modes appear to be science fiction to the general public. Those of us that know Code have abilities only few other share. It is always a good, weird fact about yourself. We are some of the earliest users of digital modes – we are like walking museums.