Ham radio hangs on
(Page 2 of 2)
Hams to the rescueSkip to next paragraph
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Ham culture isn't only about idle chatter. It's also about public service. Even in 2011, in the age of Twitter and HDTV, the thousands of experienced hams across the country form a kind of shadow communication network, which can prove exceptionally useful when traditional channels go dark. On the afternoon of April 27, for instance, a particularly violent tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, leveling hundreds of homes, and leaving at least 45 people dead, before hurtling northeast toward Birmingham.
The local police lost their communication tower, cellphone towers became overloaded, and landlines in many parts of greater Tuscaloosa were severed. "We were out there providing basic levels of communication," remembers Mr. Howell. "In the beginning, there wasn't a lot of means to do that. Cellphones were down for days." Some members of the club headed out into the field to help direct traffic, or assist "the walking wounded," as Howell says. Some served as weather spotters, logging regular reports on the progress of the tornado. Meanwhile, others channeled information from the field to the local bureau of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"The typical first responder isn't going to understand how a radio works, until it doesn't work, because it isn't their job," says Mr. Moseson, the editor of CQ. "But being hams, we do understand. We're used to scotch taping systems back together. Self-reliance and independence is part of our world. It always has been."
So, too, has gear. Thousands of dollars of gear: the teetering piles of transceivers, receivers, and rotators that every ham worth his salt ends up amassing, stripping down, and cobbling back together again. On a sweltering afternoon last month, Drummond and Howell stand in Drummond's backyard in suburban Northport, Ala., peering up at one of the gems of Drummond's collection – a towering metal antenna, which looms over the nearby houses. Drummond runs a hand through his silver hair and points at the cables that help hold the thing upright.
"And you can get ones even bigger," he chuckles.
"For a lot of money," says Howell.
"Well, this one wasn't cheap," Drummond says.
A guest wonders aloud if Drummond ever thinks about how much cash he's put into his ham equipment. "I think about it all the time. But I believe what you're really asking is if I'd do it again," he says. "And the answer is yes. I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat."
Back inside, Drummond's immaculately clean study, which he has converted into his home station, is filled with trophies and mementos. The desk bristles with radio gear, from expensive Yaesu transceivers to vintage radios. Drummond spins a dial, and Dutch fills the study, followed by rapid-fire Spanish. He calls off the countries as the dial turns – the Netherlands, Spain, France. Then a local voice filters through with the familiar Southern drawl. The man and Drummond exchange greetings.
"It feels like an accomplishment, doesn't it?" Drummond asks, turning to Howell. "So much more so than just picking up a phone."
Drummond rifles through his desk and produces a stack of cardboard rectangles marked up with old-fashioned stamps and ribbons of elegant cursive script. These are what hams call QSL cards, and in the old days, operators would exchange QSLs to confirm contact between two stations. The cards in Drummond's hand – several date from the 1930s – provide a nice contrast with the cutting-edge gear that clutters his station.
"You know," Drummond says, pointing at the call signs printed on one of the QSLs, "you start to dig back a little bit, and you think about all the places hams have traveled before, because they have definitely traveled – every time you get on the radio, you're taking a trip around the world. And you think, 'My, what a wonderful fraternity I belong to.' "