Many of my friends ask me, “Why are you into ham radio?” or “What is an amateur radio operator?”. When I provide a brief explanation, I am typically met by a description of all of the reasons why I shouldn’t be a ham. Some of the ones I have heard are…
It’s an old man hobby
We have mobile phones and the Internet
… and so on
Hmmm… I’m not going to reply to each one individually. I will list each of the reasons why *I* am involved with amateur radio.
I have taken a lot of technical exams throughout my career. I have done a lot of studying for these exams. I have written white papers which were published. Partly I did these things because it benefited my career at the time, but mostly because of the challenge involved with learning new skills and then honing them.
I have repeated this pattern over and over. I love taking on woodworking projects just because of the creativity and the challenge of designing something from scratch and then using techniques that I have never used before, just so I can prove to myself that I can.
Amateur Radio served this challenge as well, and continues to do so. I messed around with basic electronics when I was a kid. I mostly took things apart. I am a competent solderer. I know basic electronic theory. I desire to know much much more.
Ham radio feeds this craving. There are so many different aspects of ham radio that I doubt anyone could become an expert in all of them. There are the different frequency bands from microwave to high frequency. There are different modes such as voice, a lot of different high-tech digital modes, satellite operations, moon-bouncing, DX (distance) challenges, CW (morse code.. which is very much alive), low power operations, high power operations, networking, clustering, repeaters, linking, contests for many of the above, certifications, teaching, and a lot that I can’t think of off the top of my head.
If I happen to get bored with one aspect, there are plenty of others to keep me interested.
While I had been interested in becoming an amateur operator for a long time, life, time, Morse code requirements and so forth kept me from acting on my desires. Then 9/11 happened. Then hurricane Katrina happened. Then I read Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life by Neil Strauss. It was this culmination of events that shifted my mindset. We live in a very fragile world. If we lose a portion of the power grid, pipelines, roads, water purification, etc… any one of these… society tends to break down in a matter of weeks. People fall back on their instincts. They either do what they planned to do, or they go with their gut reaction. If they prepared, the will take care of themselves and their families. If they didn’t prepare, they will either roll over and give up, or they will become primal, almost savage, in order to sustain themselves.
What does this have to do with amateur radio? “When all else fails” is the tagline on many amateur radio logos, bumper stickers, and so forth. Think about it. If we lose power… cell towers die after their backup power runs out. In a catastrophe, they also get swamped. There are only so many circuits available. Unless you have a government priority phone, odds are pretty good you won’t be one of the ones that does get through to reach your loved ones to make plans to reunite, escape, get supplies, etc. Look back at 9/11. New York was at a virtual communications blackout. Phones, mobile phones and even commercial radio systems were failing and overloaded. Do you know what did work? Yep, amateur radio. Many amateurs helped coordinate relief communications for 9/11 recovery efforts. Same for New Orleans and hurricane Katrina. When power was lost and the city was turned into a guerrilla war zone with looters and martial law, amateur radio was one of the only ways to communicate.
No, being a ham doesn’t mean you are prepared. No, being a ham doesn’t make you a survival nut. But, being a ham is a good way to ensure that you will be able to communicate no matter what, and it is a valuable skill to have in dire times. Think, if you are part of the solution, you are given resources in exchange for your service.
Yes, I admit it. Amateur radio is rather geeky. Yes, the stereotype of your average operator being a retiree in their late 60s to their however-long-they-will-live-years, is pretty accurate. Yes, it really is kind of esoteric. This is a good thing. It means that there is plenty of space on the bands for all of us to talk without having problems. This is what makes it great for emergency communications. I have always gravitated to the ‘outside the normal’ things. I like being unique. I like being a geek. I like knowing things most people don’t. I’ll wear that geek moniker as a badge of honor. 🙂
I enjoy playing MMORPGs. If you are asking “What is a MMORPG?”, well, surely you have heard of World of Warcraft. You know that little game that some 13+million people are paying $15 a month to play. Yes, yet another sign of my geekiness.
Why do I like to play? Well, there is the challenge and acheivement aspect of it, but for me, the biggest thing is the social side. You do things with other people, from all walks of life, that join together because of a single common interest. You get to know people from all over the world. You learn new ways of thinking, new approaches to problem-solving, and so on. It is ‘diversity’ at it’s finest.
Do you know what else I could have been describing? The amateur radio community. It is for all of those same reasons that I enjoy making new contacts and meeting different people from all over the country and world. Yes, some of them are old-timers. Again, that’s a good thing. One thing I have figured out in the years I have been on this planet, is that I don’t know much. I may know more than a lot of people, but everyone has something that they can teach me, and those that have been around longer than me have an even greater pool of knowledge to pull from.
The last aspect I want to touch on is giving back. I have been through some rough times after the dot-com bust. I was out of work for a while. We survived because of the generosity of others. One thing that the experience reinforced was the fact that God put us here to help each other. I like being involved in the community and using my meager skills to offer a service to those that need it. Most of the time this is through practice events such as the Plano Balloon Festival, the Blacklands Triathlon, and other local events. It’s not much, but practicing my skills and offering a valuable service for free feels good.
In general, amateur radio is a fun, challenging hobby that allows me to build meaningful relationships with other, give to the community and help me be prepared to provide for my family in any situation.