Radio club talks to the world
By Wynne Everett
VALLEY NEWS DISPATCH
Sunday, June 27, 2004
UPPER BURRELL-- For Bill Bell, the shorthand of amateur radio is a second language.
Listening to blips and bleeps over a radio Saturday, Bell, of Springdale, casually pointed out that the person on the other end of the transmission was half-way around the world.
"They're in Poland," he said.
"Poland?" a reporter asked.
"Yeah, don't you understand Morse code?"
A ham _ amateur radio operator _ for 54 years, Bell is also one of the founding members of the Skyview Radio Society. He and about 20 other members gathered at the club's headquarters high atop Upper Burrell Saturday for the annual field day event. The field day, sponsored by American Radio Relay League, aimed to have as many amateur radio operators as possible contact each other around the globe. Skyview members hoped to reach about 500 contacts, including people in all 50 states and many foreign countries.
Even before the field day officially began, Skyview member Bob Boehner, of Oakmont, checked in with amateur radio operators in Cuba and Turkey. Though some hams like to speak to each other over the radio, many also communicate with text messages or with Morse code. Though talking with other hams can be fun, the Morse code is often more efficient.
"There are no accents in Morse code," Boehner said.
Boehner, of Oakmont, got into amateur radio with his dad as a seventh grader in 1976.
His own children are less impressed, Boehner said.
"I'll come upstairs and they'll be on the Internet and I'll tell them I just talked to someone in Australia," Boehner said. "They just look at me."
But unlike the Internet or cell phones, ham radios will continue to work without electricity. Powered by batteries or generators, ham radios aren't as fast or cool as the Internet, but in an emergency, they're more reliable.
"This works independently if all else fails," Skyview president Bob Bastone said.
For this reason, government and emergency officials rely on amateur operators to be ready for national emergencies. Ham operators must pass a test and be licensed. And events like Saturday's field day are designed to practice for natural disasters or other emergencies that might require ham operators to keep communities connected.
But most amateur radio operators are drawn into the hobby for the fun of it. The far-flung contacts are Bell's passion. He's reached 297 countries and scans lists of distant radio operators he can try to contact.
Once hams connect over the air waves, they traditionally send each other colorful postcards as souvenirs. Bell proudly showed off cards sent by ham operators in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and even one mailed from the Soviet Union in 1965.
Club members also enjoy building their own radio sets. Boehner showed off a pair of transmitters made from empty Altoids tins. Bell crafted one out of an empty roll-on deodorant container.
"It smells nice!" he bragged.
The transmitter was powerful enough to talk to a man in Haiti this week, Bell said.
He's also built a transmitter from a beer can and adapted an old grocery buggy to haul around the battery used to power Saturday's field day.
"The thing is that this is a hobby where you can spend a kajillion dollars or you can pull something out of the trash," Bastone said.
Bastone, of Springdale, got into amateur radio 23 years ago after winning $50 in a raffle.
"It was either a radio or a guitar," he said. "So I guess if I weren't doing this, I could have been a rock star."