Getting back into Amateur Radio


One of my first hobbies -- even before programming and computers -- was Amateur Radio. It was so early in my life that I do not recall how I discovered it. I do remember that I did so independantly. I wasn't introduced to the hobby by an "Elmer", and only was able to read about it in books. 

I was already interested in electronics, even at my young age. I regularly spend my small allowence on project books from Radio Shack, which was a short walk away from the grocery store my Mom and I visited every week. I still fondly remember the stable-bound, grid-lined books about timer circuits, optoelectronics, etc. Perhaps I discovered Radio there, as Radio Shack did have a line of licensing training guides.

The library, however, was my primary source of information. From there, I could get books about ocilators, the ARRL Handbook and a very old, very fondly remembered book I called "The Green Book". It was the size of a Grant Morrison trade comic, and stuffed from cover to cover with electrical diagrams for transmitters, receivers, amplifiers, antenna tuners, and all sorts of gadgets needed to build a proper "ham shack" (now you know where Radio Shack got their name). 

Why not just buy a ham radio "rig", like normal people? I was young, and my family did not have a lot of spare cash. Dad already had an expensive hobby with computers, owning one of the first Macintosh computers -- the Mac Plus. It was primarily used to support Dad's photography business he ran on weekends. 

Certainly, they didn't have enough to spend $300 on a basic radio set for me. Mom took a disdainful attitude to the entire hobby, claiming that it was dangerous. Dad often shook his head whenever I poured over the latest catalog in the mail from Ham Radio Outlet or Universal Radio, and said "You always pick expensive hobbies". 

He didn't mean it vindictively, but the words still hurt today.

With no Elmer and no parental support, the only thing I could do about Ham Radio was read. I read every interesting book from the library. I requested more that needed to be mailed in. I saved my less-than $10 per week allowence to buy more books -- not an easy task in early 1990s! I taught myself electronics, memorized Ohm's Law, and learned to read circuit diagrams. I was mocked on the school bus for my interests and the large books I luged around. I learned to be furiously private. I cultivated an attitude that kept others away.

I took my Technian exam in 1995. There was a ham fest and somehow I managed to convice Dad to take me there. I passed eaily. I was now I licensed radio amateur. There was only one problem: No radio. Ham radios were still too expensive. While I could build one, I would need to do so from scratch. The age of the Heathkit was long since passed. As a Technician in 1995, I couldn't operate in the HF bands, or on CW. The easiest circuits to build, and the most widely advertised projects were, you guessed it, on HF with CW. Had thought about it, I would have gotten Tech Plus or Advanced license, granting me access to those frequencies and modes. After all, one thing I could do was read and take tests...

Sometime in the next few years, radios finally did drop enough in price for my family to afford one. The Alinco DJ-S11 is a 2 meter handheld, operated by three AA batteries. It was sold for $99. My family had a practical approach to Christmas gifts, tell us want you want, and if it's within your alloted $100, you can have it. 

I still have this radio today. It's cute, tiny, simple, and does everything a new ham would need. Except there's one glaring problem -- it's woefully underpowered. A standard handy-talky (HT) today outputs about 5 watts of power. The radio I had opened that Christmas, only outputted 250 milli-watts. Given where I lived, it wouldn't have even made it to the next repeater. It was useless.

I remember sitting in my room, eventually working up the courage to press the transmit button, only to have silence greet me each time. Eventually, I put the radio in a drawer, packed up all my books, and quietly forgot about the entire thing.

For the next decade I didn't touch Ham Radio. I convinced myself my parents were right. Some years later, I threw out all of my books, my parts, and everything else save for the DJ-S11 and a MFJ Morse Code trainer -- they were deemed too expensive to trivially dispose. Those remained in a box for years, a painful memory. 

In those years I taught myself C and C++ programming, GUI design, low level graphics algorithms, cross-platform programming frameworks, and more I won't bother to list. I had more success in a sense of the term: What I built actually worked. If it didn't, I didn't need to go to a shop to buy more parts. I only needed to rewrite what I had done, compile, and try again. I also enjoyed more social success in that I had conversations with people. For all the effort I put in to Radio, it didn't allievate the crippling lonliness of my childhood. I used programming to make friends well into college before I figured out what friends were.

I can't place what drew my attention back to Ham Radio. Perhaps it was a visiting friend who brought her HT and her mobile station with her for a week-long visit. I wasn't in a place to look into the hobby then, but this summer I had both the time and resources. Radios are still expensive, but no more so than a mid-range laptop or a non-subsidised smartphone. The Internet, far from being the downfall of the hobby, has made finding study materials and testing sites so much easier to find. 

I spent most of the last week studying for my tech exam. I was surprised to discover the Morse Code requirement had been dropped -- something that held me up all those years ago. I poured over the ARRL Licensing manual, and drilled myself using websites and an Android app. Old episodes of DS9 or something from Netflix played in the background quietly those evenings.

I took the exam yesterday, scheduling it the last minute through the ARRL website. I tore through the exam, only missing one question. The Volunteer Examiners (VEs) egged me on by suggesting I take the General exam too. I hadn't studied, but it was still early in the morning, and I had already paid the $15 to take any number of exams that day. I sat down and tried it.

The General Class exam isn't easy, but if you're versed in a lot of first principles of radio and electronics, it's not difficult to derive the correct responses. I didn't do as well as the Tech exam, but I still passed.

That same day, I bought a new radio. Again, an HT, but a full 5 watts and full of features. I could have bought a more powerful mobile station, but there's something about hand-helds I find appealing. Hopefully my new call sign will appear in the FCC database by mid-week, and I can attempt my first contact.