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A few words from Rob K9RST…

A visit to Leonore

I mentioned in a newsletter that I would be willing to come out to visit any radio club to make presentations on serving the Chicago Marathon. Well, I had a taker and I agreed without ever thinking about the request. “Can you come visit our club? We are supporting the Starved Rock Marathon?” That was the request. So, where do we meet?  “Come to our club house in Leonore, IL.” Leonore? I never heard of the place and all I knew for sure was that it was 2 hours away.

I punched in the address into my GPS and set off on a journey to the edge of the known universe. Actually, after I got out of the Chicago madness and traffic, and well into the country, the drive out was very pleasant. I know I was nowhere when I finally got on a series of straight-as-an-arrow country roads with nothing but harvested corn fields to my left and to my right. Huge open landscapes, with shaved remnant of corn stalks were everywhere. Dull brown, barren fields, except for the promise of the season to come. I drove and drove. Occasionally, I went right and then left! And still, I drove. Suddenly, like Oz, off in the distance, I could see radio towers…and then I saw the mill. Turns out the Starved Rock Radio Clubhouse is in a small little building next to the tallest structure in town, the mill. There are about 25 permanent residents in this town…no fast food anything. Surrounded by corn fields, the club has a really charming building that they share with the mill (the mill pays them rent and so that allows them to keep the place). In one room, they have a general meeting area and in the back room, their “radio room,” they have several stations set up for permanent use and lots of stuff! I was told by one of my hosts, Mark Gebhardt, K9ZQ, that the club house is often the dumping ground for stuff that doesn’t fit into other hams’ home! So, there were piles of repeater carcasses, parts in boxes, radios in various stages of repair. I was greeted by Mark, who I knew from the Red Cross and Joe Tokarz, KB9EZZ. I got the nickel tour of the station and some history of the club. I have to say, these guys made me feel right at home. I was one of the gang! I love that about ham radio…for the most part, you are always welcomed as part of the family.

Now Leonore is truly in the middle of nothing. There is the mill, with is its tall mass, and a ring of about 20 houses around the mill. That’s the town of Leonore. No McDonald’s. No restaurants at all actually, just the mill. I arrived at 5 pm for my 7 pm presentation and slowly watched as people pulled into the club house. Eventually about 25 people arrived, each with a different story about their radio background, but all incredibly friendly. Hams are generally a gregarious group…and I was amazed at how far many of these guys had to drive to get to this place. There were several who travelled 40–45 minutes to get to this spot! Of course, knowing how many came to hear me speak only added to the pressure of giving a good talk!

Eventually, I met Brad Nicholson, KA9WRZ. Brad worked with me on the Chicago Marathon and while we had never met, we have been in communication quite a bit over the years. He was now the lead for the Starved Rock Marathon and he was the guy who actually invited me out. In the audience we not only had the hams from the club, but a couple of EMA Directors, Police and Fire officials – all to hear how we in Chicago support the Chicago Marathon.

The talk, which featured heavily on how hams support other marathons, went quite well. Or at least so I am told. I was grateful for the opportunity and thrilled to see how other clubs are organized.
Their 2 meter antenna sits high atop the mill and serves as a vital link to the surrounding county for communications, Skywarn and other services. You can see how ham radio really can be more than just a
fun hobby, but serious work too. Thanks to my hosts for having me out. I learned a great deal.

Repeater coverage

Meanwhile, I came home to a series of serious storms in the Chicago area and was curious to know how well our own Skywarn team was handling the traffic. As some of you may know, our antennas had been severely beaten on while serving on the roof. The 220 antenna snapped in half and the 2 meter antenna was leaning well to the east, I suspect from the high winds on top of the building. We have since replaced them with more stable antennas, but with half of the gain. In preparing for a discussion I was to have with our repeater hosts, I came across some terrific free software to calculate your repeater coverage. This is sponsored by the Canadian government and requires an email address and pass word to work, but is it really fascinating to play with. Here is the link to the site: http://lrcov.crc.ca This program asks you for many details about the height of your antenna and the type of antenna, power and location you are using. All of this is in meters, so you need to do some conversions. In the end, I got a great map of Chicago, showing the potential service coverage for the NSRC 2 meter machine. Somehow, I will try to figure out how to get this on our website.

Rob Orr
K9RST

Ham video on the web, plus the origin of "lid"

Just saying. Many of you know, I work in the video business and for most of my career it has been a terrific vocation. In the past couple of years, as technology has lowered the bar for entry, every buddy and his brother is now in the video business – and I continue to survive because basically, I have the skills to tell a story…and not just to record a selfie. So the other day I got an email inviting me to join yet another ham radio video subscription service, so I took the bait. W5KUB.com has a weekly video live newsmagazine on ham radio. First, you have to understand making video is not easy work. In this case, they basically had a camera trained on the presenter who interviewed the guest. And, while not real dynamic, it was interesting. I would recommend checking it out (but they suffer from the same disease as most of these folks…they think we have nothing but time on our hands to watch them chat).

Ham Nation is the brain child of Bob Heil, Gordon West, George Thomas, Don Wilbanks and, one of our very own, Cheryl Lasik. I have watched a few of their broadcasts and they are always seeking contributions from the field. Again, I am not sure how people find the time or money to get all of this work done, but God love’m.

I know many of you have seen Gary Pierce’s Amateur Radio Video Newsletter (AVRN). Gary does an amazing job. He is a professional videographer – and frankly, I don’t see how he can make any money doing these videos, but I am very grateful that he does this work. You can see him often at Dayton operating three cameras by himself, and on himself! (He is host, director and cameraman!) It is kind of amusing to see how he has built a portable video studio with all sorts of small HD cameras.

All of these web programs have a video archive on their sites, so you can catch past shows. I have to admit, I was kind of overwhelmed by the number of really well produced videos that are currently on YouTube regarding ham radio. Today, you can have a virtual “Elmer” at your fingertips and on demand!

As for me, I’m thinking it might be time to find another career? I’ll be taking suggestions. Somebody asked me the other day, how I enjoyed retirement? “Retirement?” I asked. :What do you mean?” I still need to get 10 more years out of this business. Well, he misunderstood me when I told him I was retiring as President of the NSRC. The benefits package from the NSRC is just not lucrative!

SK

So, I got a call from a friend whose husband passed away and she wanted to recognize his ham radio work on his gravestone. She asked if there was a symbol for SK? Well, I have yet to find one, but it got me off on a tangent trying to explain some of our stranger acronyms. For instance, she asked, “why are we called “hams”? Well many people ask this and this is what I found on the ARRL. Web site:

Why are Amateur Radio Operators also called “Hams”?-

Ham: a poor operator; a ‘plug’ (G. M. Dodge; The Telegraph Instructor)

The first wireless operators were landline telegraphers who left their offices to go to sea or to man the coastal stations. They brought with them their language and much of the tradition of their older profession. In those early days, every station occupied the whole spectrum with its broad spark signal. Government stations, ships, coastal stations and the increasingly numerous amateur operators all competed for time and signal supremacy in each other’s receivers. Many of the amateur stations were very powerful. Two amateurs, working each other across town, could effectively jam all the other operations in the area. Frustrated commercial operators would refer to the ham radio interference by calling them “hams.” Amateurs, possibly unfamiliar with the real meaning of the term, picked it up and applied it to themselves. As the years advanced, the original meaning has completely disappeared.

And then there are LIDS

So, then I was trying to explain to my wife why we are called hams and I told her that what were once “hams” are now LIDS! Huh? So I did a little research and found that LIDS referred to telegraph operators who used the lid from a Prince Albert can as a way of amplifying the audio from the telegraph. Often these folks were new, younger operators and did not have the skills of an experienced operator. We still used the term today…to describe a host of poor operator behaviors. There was one tongue in cheek article on the web entitled, “How to become a LID!”

LIDS, HAMS, SK – we have some fine, mysterious traditions in this hobby. It is among the things that keeps us together as an International League of Radio Frequency Amateurs…or just plain Hams!

73,
Rob, K9RST
President Emeritus
From my country estate in Glenview

The ham in the neighborhood

Every so often I get a call from Ron Steinberg, K9IKZ, to join him on some adventure or other. Couple weeks back, Ron called and said he was holed up at Meier’s Tavern in Glenview and invited me to join him. It was 3 p.m. Too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but what the heck, it was winter in Chicago, cold and blustery, so I took off to join him. Oddly, when I arrived, the place was pretty full. In fact, initially, I could not even find him. He was buried in the back corner nursing a beer and hiding behind two huge plastic tubes. In fact, he was so ensconced that he couldn’t even get up to shake my hand. He pulled box number one down and said, “This is not for today…this is all about the Enigma machine.”

Now, you have to understand Ron is a collector of all manner of interesting things, largely history, especially history of technology. Many might not know that Chicago at one point was the epicenter of a pretty robust electronics industry, including Ron’s favorite subject, Western Electric. Western Electric used to produce all of the phones and phone equipment for the country. They had an enormous factory in Cicero, Illinois that was shuttered in the 70’s or 80’s. Ron collected many of the old publications from the company, because, like many things, corporations don’t have the resources to save their own history. Well, among the incredible gems that he pulled out was a small story book on the Eastland Disaster, Chicago’s biggest nautical disaster. All of the people on that boat were Western Electric families, off for an afternoon company picnic. The boat was poorly loaded and flipped over in the Chicago River. Well, most of the photos in this book were from Ron’s collection. It was fascinating (and made even more interesting because later that week a university grad student discovered some original newsreel footage of the disaster while digging through some old Dutch newsreels. What a wild find.) Anyway, this book was not the main event. Such is an audience with Ron Steinberg. This was the appetizer.

Next Ron started to tell the story of how he became a ham…and what motivated him to even consider ham radio. Some of the mystery I understand, having been born in the 50’s, I too was caught up in the “Radio Boys” phenomenon. Turns out, there was a neighbor of his who had an enormous tower in his back yard. Thus began the story of W9CNN. As a youth, Ron would walk by this gentleman’s house and press his nose up to the living room window. Inside the window he would see an amazing array of electronic cabinets…I mean it literally filled the entire room. It looked like a broadcast center, yet it was an amateur radio station. Having had similar experiences myself with similar stations, I can only share his excitement. It was truly dazzling and even more spectacular that it was all crammed into the living room of a house. Well, seeing this station really fired up Ron’s imagination and piqued his interest. Turns out there were several others in his old “hood” that had similar stations.

Well, as things go, Ron never met W9CNN. W9CNN died at an early age and life goes on. One day, emboldened as we often get in our advanced ages, Ron introduced himself to the widow. Now, I had a few beers by now, so the story might have gotten a little fuzzy, but he explains to the lady how he would go past their house when he was younger and how this station got him into the hobby. So moved by his story, she gave Ron all of W9CNN’s station logs and QSL cards. We spend almost an hour going through the cards. It was fascinating to see all of the people he worked – what bands they used, what power and antennas he deployed, and the friendships that developed. Hams from all over the US and Europe were in the collection. The most interesting cards were the SWL cards. In those days, if you heard a station, you could send that ham a report card that showed you had heard them at your location. Your card was for confirmation and signal report. I have heard from others that this practice was often the way new hams got into the hobby – by listening first. Well, the cards really told the story of the early days of our hobby. It was a gentleman’s sport, whose spirit continues today. I mention all of this today, because in this era of digital QSLing, we are losing some of the intimacy that the cards provided. In many ways, we should not lose sight of what this hobby is really about: connecting with other likeminded people. Making friends and sharing stories.

Thanks, Ron for sharing yours with me.

Rob K9RST

 

Boy meets oscilloscope

Several years ago, a friend gave me his prized stereo amplifier, a JBL 6260. This is a vintage line built by UREI that you can still find in use today. I had used it in my office as a reference amp and stereo for years…and, because I am lazy, I never turned the power off. You know, the switch is way back there and I am way up here etc! One day, I heard the tell tale signs of old age…the capacitors started to sing, crackle and finally pop. She was dead. Of course, all of this happened when my arm was in a sling from having some surgery done, so I had to wait for my son to come home to drag the amp to my bench. It has a fabulous and heavy transformer that must weigh 10 pounds all by itself. I popped open the covers and peered in. Everything appeared fine…but I knew there were issues. I was able to get a nice schematic on-line and started to do some hunting. All lines lead to the 4 electrolytic capacitors that help distribute the power to the system. Now, getting replacements is where the fun began. These are all built on through-hole boards, so finding components like that are becoming difficult. The best thing about this project – which says tons about a world we have left behind, is that the documentation for this amp was superb. I could read the schematic and find the components (everything was clearly numbered). Obviously, they planned on people fixing this thing.

I hunted around for the exact type replacements and finally found some on eBay…from Hong Kong. In fact, I found a ton of older parts from Hong Kong. So, I ordered the parts and waited. I did get a nice note from someone over there thanking me for the order and encouraged me to write if it didn’t arrive.

In the intervening weeks, I found a huge library of online videos from stereophiles talking about this amp and others and service issues they had faced. This was simply amazing—and opened my eyes to a universe that I never knew existed. I knew of audiophiles…really serious people about their audio gear, but I never saw so many people doing serious bench tests with the gear. One guy had a four part video series putting this amp on his bench and testing all of the components…that worked out to my advantage later.

I installed the new caps when they arrived and was thrilled that everything powered up again. I left it on for a while when new problem came to the front. The unit would not switch out of stand by and that relay started to chatter and make all sorts of noise. So, back to the drawing board. That is when Greg Karlove stopped by with his oscilloscope. I never really used a scope other than to show kids what their voices looked like. Well, he started probing and measuring. That proved to be a wonderful hands-on tutorial on how to trace and find bad components. A great meeting topic, by the way. Sure enough, we had to replace three more capacitors…which turned out to be another journey. I did go to Radio Shack, but they did not have the parts. Go figure! Eventually, I was able to cobble together the parts from various sources (yes, I know you can go on line to purchase them from many fine distributors, but I am kind of a Neanderthal. I like to go to local shops and buy parts now!)

My arm is all healed now…so I can lift the unit back into place to see if it works and low and behold…it does! It is back in great working order and I am all the wiser. I also now know why people don’t fix things anymore…it is often impossible to get good documentation or replacement parts. I have an Alinco 2 meter radio that has issues and it will be simpler for me to throw it out and buy a new one than to try to fix the surface mounted components. So, without sounding nostalgic…from an educational point of view, I love the old days. Thanks to Greg Karlove, and the entire Internet for sharing their time and knowledge.

Rob Orr K9RST
Vice President of the NSRC

The Power of the Screwdriver

I will be the first to admit that I am not an electronics genius. I got into radio because I wanted to learn more, and I am glad to report that I have gained a great deal of practical knowledge about electronics and radio. Within the NSRC Board, we have had discussions about the right way to teach people about radio. I have a perspective that I don’t think we have ever considered that I would like to add here. First, to summarize the pedagogical arguments: one school of thought is that you teach general concepts and the details will follow; the other idea is that you teach the essentials you need to learn to pass the exam and the details will follow. I have to admit in my own education, I largely followed the latter path, because I was impatient. To learn more of the formal theories used in our hobby, I have resorted to building small kits (studying schematics) and reading books. This model has worked fairly well for me.

So my alternative suggestion? Plug and Play, with an emphasis on play. If you can start by experimenting, working on practical problems you can reach the same end (and you will probably blow a few things up along the way as well!). For instance, I truly believe the real value of a becoming a ham radio operator has been what it has taught me about problem solving. I feel empowered to use my screwdriver to explore the world under the metal cabinet. What happens when the SWR is too high? When your amp does not put out power? When the mic audio is distorted? When the ladder line you deployed throws RF back through your system and bites you every time you key up the mic! These are all practical problems that I have had to manage most recently, but this goes by extension to other things as well. Like Life!

I recently bought a new computer for my shack that just was not working. It kept crashing. I had all sorts of advice from my Internet friends and buddies in the club. Slowly, I discovered the problem and it was not an intuitive fix. Turns out the guy who built the machine installed the jumper cables for the serial ports in backwards (there was not key pin on the jumpers, so the error could have been made by anyone.) Once I reversed the cable, the problem went away. Now, this took weeks of thinking, observing, experimenting and writing down what was going on: when did the error occur? What did I do to get the system to recover? I even took it back to the shop and the guy refused to work on the machine! He said, “Hardware never fails…and I would have to charge you!” Finally, I got bold and decided to take the serial card out myself and that was when I found the problem. I learned a long time ago to try, and if you fail, then you can bring in the Marines to save the day.

The other day, Ron Settle WM9Q and I went to visit our ailing 220 machine. We opened the cabinet and immediately discovered that the power supply was dead. This was not the problem we were expecting. Ron had brought fuses for every other component but the power supply because, frankly, how often do those go down? In my rather short ham life, I have yet to see a power supply go bad and this was a brand new unit (and here’s the rub…brand new!! BEWARE). What I watched next truly amazed me….and I think it did the same for the gentleman from the building who accompanied us to the site. Ron fully demonstrated the power of a screwdriver in the hands of a ham radio guy. Ron wanted to see if there was something in the system that was causing the power supply to fail, but he did not have the correct sized fuse, so he fashioned a jumper using one of the longer fuses he brought along that had the right rating. With the jumper cable and some electrical tape, he cobbled together a temporary fuse (Editor: never use your screwdriver to bridge the fuse…that is not a fuse. It is a great way to start a fire. More on that in another blog!!) In an instant, he had built a “work around for the fuse,” so now he could power the repeater and better trace where the problem might be. Then, he put out a call on his radio to see if the repeater worked. It worked fine. However, we noticed that the cooling fan on the power supply was not turning. Clearly, that was the failure point, and the heat sink on the supply was growing quite warm in a very short period of time. So we decided to take the power supply out and work on it at home. He followed this simple process: Observe; test systems logically – power, transmitter, controllers, amps, and antenna; experiment; and conclude. Following this logic tree, we discovered a few other problems with that repeater that need to be addressed in the future as well.

I was very proud of how quickly the problem was sorted out, a solution presented and a recovery plan discussed (we will be putting in backup power supplies in our repeater cabinets in the future!). Meanwhile, because of the Holidays, the 220 machine will be down for a few more days. We cannot get immediate access to the building.

The point of this tiny blog is to suggest, don’t be afraid to use your screw drive to open the cabinet and peer inside. It is another way to learn. I have a table full of projects waiting surgery. But be Safe. Don’t stick your screwdriver into anything that is plugged in and powered up. This is the short cut to the big ham shack in the sky (pun intended).

Happy New Year everyone.

Rob K9RST

Shel Epstein K9APE (SK)

Shel K9APE passed away on November 9.

Shel was a long standing member of the Club and served on our Board as Vice President for 4 years.  He always had the best interests of the Club in his heart.

Below is the Eulogy I delivered at his service:

================================

I’m Rob Orr, member of the North Shore Amateur Radio Club, which is how I got to know Shel.

I currently serve as the Club’s President and I am often asked if people still use ham radio today and my answer is resoundingly yes, and Shel is a great example of why it is still around.  Amateur radio is a hobby that has been in existence for as long as radio itself.  People are attracted to the hobby for a number of reasons: social engagement, educational development, experimentation, public service – it can be serious fun!  As it goes, Shel, was among my very first ham radio contacts. His call sign: K9APE…who could forget that call? It is still in my log book.  He was wonderfully supportive to me as a newbie and immediately embraced me as a fellow “ham.”  Over the years, you could count on hearing Shel almost every day on the local repeaters talking to anyone who would answer his call.  Shel was always welcoming and a great conversationalist.

Later, when I joined the Board, I really got to know him better.  He served as our Club’s Vice President for several years.  Shel was never shy about sharing his thoughts or opinions. He loved to play the lawyer card (and why not? He was one!) and when it worked to our advantage, we love him for it.  I often wrestled with his strong opinions on some matters but more often than not found that Shel was right.

We have an annual event called Field Day…it is an opportunity for us to show the public what ham radio is all about. Shel volunteered to be our host, greeting visitors and explaining what we actually do with these radios. In this, Shel excelled.  He loved sharing his passion for radio and technology, especially with younger people.

Shel became most animated when he reflected on the declining state of engineering today. He was truly concerned that our best and brightest were not  studying engineering.    Ham radio served as the gateway for him to reach out to a young public people. He actively encouraged young people to become scientists or engineers. I remember well being at a ham radio event we sponsored at the Adler Planetarium and watching Shel teach the young visitors at our display how to work the radio.  He brought it down to their level. He seemed as enthralled as the kids were to talk to people around the world using a radio and a simple wire antenna. 

Shel, as many of you know…was scary bright…and holder of many well-thought out opinions!  He would love to share those thoughts with whomever would listen and I loved to listen (it was safer than arguing!!).  We had many lunches together to discuss all manner of stuff… science, electronics, radio, education, the law, marriage, Christianity, Jewish history, Shel could discuss all of these topics in great depth. Sometimes, he would recount how he met and ultimately married Suzy. He often talked about how she inspired him and it was clear, Suzy,  that you were the love of his life. 

More often, Shel would discuss a book he had recently read and reviewed for the Radio Club’s newsletter.  He has left us large body of written reviews, many of them still available on the Internet if you Google them.

Ham radio is a small International community and Shel, embodied the best of ham radio: he was technically astute; he loved to socialize and discuss ideas and he loved to teach. He was always a gentleman.   Personally, I am grateful for his friendship and his passion for this hobby.  Speaking on behalf of the club, I am also thankful to him for the many years he generously shared his time and talents with us.  He made me a better thinker and strategist, and helped us all become better ham radio operators.  K9APE, like his radio call sign, was one of a kind…and as one of my ham colleagues, Bill Steffey,  recently wrote about Shel: “no one could get us thinking more than K9APE.”  He will be missed but well remembered.

Rob K9RST

Dear Heloise

So, last weekend about 30 of us provided radio and support for the Evanston Bike Club’s North Shore Century. This is always a great fall event, attracting thousands of bikers (2300 this year) and raising lots of money for charity (last year they gave away close to $40,000! Yes, $40K). Over the nine years we have done this event, we have really grown in sophistication and numbers. We have teams at all of the 7 rest areas; 8 or 9 ham radio operators with vehicles, radios, APRS trackers and a bike person on the course assisting distressed bikers (flats are the most common, but there can be serious accidents as well). We also have 3-4 hams that travel with the bike SAG (Support and Gear) people, with portable radios and APRS trackers. We also had one bike mobile ham. This year we added a new feature…we tried out a sophisticated event dispatch system that worked extremely well, thanks to the incredible diligence of Dave Hartnett, who spend hours learning how to program the thing.

Basically, people call an 800 number that rings in our command tent. From there, we can formulate a response, based on where the trackers say our vehicles are. We are very proud of the service we have provided, the sophistication of our tools and the team we have assembled. In fact, we now almost outnumber the bike SAG folks.

We did have our share of nagging problems. Our repeaters worked well, but not to the limits of the course. The routes run from Dawes Park in Evanston to Kenosha and back…that is a huge distance. Plus, there are serious terrain issues along the lake and a growing amount of radio traffic. Next year we need to do a better job of figuring out a net control system.

I have brought my favorite little Army tent down to the lake shore to serve as our HQ. And my car was as packed for this event as it is for Field Day…tents, poles, antennas, coax and generators. GAS. Well, somehow some gas spilled on the back floor of the car and really smelled. I thought I could get rid of the smell by just letting the air to it, but it overpowered the interior all event day. That Sunday and Monday, I aired the car and took all of the floor protection surfaces out. I thought that would work. I left the doors and windows open…and by Wednesday it still stunk. Time for some Google therapy…how do you get rid of the smell of gasoline? Dear Heloise? How do you get the smell of gas off…hands, clothes, cars…each was a different category. You can find the answer to almost anything on the Internet! So, I tried the first suggestion: spray Febreze on the carpeting in the car?! Seemed kind of extreme, but what the heck, I tried it. The effect was immediate! It smelt great and I thought, SUCCESS! I closed the doors to the car and slept on it. Next morning, I jumped into the car and was greeted with the most putrid mix of gas and sweet perfume. It was like the Avon plant exploded over a refinery. It was not a pleasant mix. Left the doors opens to see if that would work and over time, the Febreze would overpower the gas fumes, but it never eliminated it. So, back to the Internet…solution #2. Coffee! Seriously. You were to throw ground coffee on the spots and let it sit for a few days. Seemed odd to dump good coffee on the floor…and so I took my wife’s favorite flavored coffee (not my preferred Mexican brand) and low and behold it worked…except for the lingering smell of the flavored coffee. So, I got a can of cheap ground coffee and dumped it on the carpeting and now the car smells better. Not perfect…But livable. So, is there a moral to this tale? My wife would say don’t volunteer (and don’t mess with her coffee)…but another option might be to make sure you have fuel cans that are designed for transport (they do make such things, and they are expensive, but it might be less than dumping decent coffee on the floor!)

The bike event…well, it was a huge success. Thanks again to the great turn out from the ham radio community. I continue to be amazed how generous the ham radio community can be for things like this…makes you proud.

73 Rob K9RST

Public service season

For the NSRC, fall has become one of our biggest planned Public Service seasons of the year. I say planned, because these events support various causes and are all well planned out in advance. Contrast that with events that are less predictable (Katrina, tornados, etc.). When I worked for the Red Cross as a volunteer, I was grateful to the 40 or so people from around the Chicagoland area who supported our little communication truck, the ECRV. Since then, the Red Cross has abandoned that strategy for other solutions, but our team was composed largely of ham radio folks! I learned then that ham radio people can be trusted to do big things.

I am very pleased to be leading the support for Evanston Bicycle Club’s North Shore Century and Bank of America’s Chicago Marathon. Both present challenges, technically and physically. But what they have in common is the need for good volunteers.

For the bike event, we were asked to help them with a problem. They had no way to keep in contact with their SAG drivers (these are the folks who drive along the course and help distressed cyclists.) Our first year, we observed how they did their work and realized that indeed, no one answered their phones! We put together a radio network, then an APRS network and now we have a very sophisticated dispatching program that we are unveiling this year. We have nearly 30 hams who work alongside the 16 or so bicycle club volunteers to support the 2000 riders, so we have become critical to their event. The best part of it, though, is that these folks have come to see what ham radio can really do…and we can do what we do because we have seasoned pros who are dependable.

For the Marathon, the year after their huge hot weather meltdown (they had to close the course due to a hot weather emergency), they started to look for better ways to manage their course-wide communications. Other marathons had used ham radio operators with varying success…and reluctant as I was to step up, we accepted the assignment to help. Kate Saccany, Jerry Martin and Craig Dieckman and I took on the task of building a support team even though we had no idea what we were doing, where we would get volunteers or what resources were available. We quickly found plenty…repeaters, clubs, and trained volunteers (trained in Emergency Communications or who had taken the FEMA ISC courses). Over the years, we have proven to be a dependable team, so much so that they keep asking us to take on more responsibilities. Our work has even been recognized publicly by FEMA officials who were assigned to observe our work

I have been eager to support all of these events because I think it has given a public face to ham radio. Certainly for the Marathon, the Chicago EMA, Police and Fire Departments have seen a different face of ham radio—people willing to serve, willing to accept responsibility and who understand command and control. Clearly, the Marathon is a very serious undertaking, but I have loved what we have done and extremely grateful to the 115 hams from 4 states who support this event. That said, we always are looking for people. With that many people involved, there is always about a 25% drop out rate, year to year. This year, the NSRC is one of the lead organizations, both in providing leadership and volunteers. But we have clubs from as far away as Peoria joining in as well. This is a team effort. In fact, there are people from 11 different clubs represented.

For a while, using ham radio for public communications had been abandoned in the public service sector. Part of the issue was our own doing…too many hams thought they had total control over the emergency communications scene…but then cell phones, the web and other products basically rendered us useless to many groups. Fortunately for us, many institutions are beginning to rediscover what ham radio can mean to their organizations, and so we have been given a new opportunity to show that we can be useful. It does mean that we have to be mindful of our client’s goals. We serve…not the other way around…is the new mantra.

Meanwhile, the word has gotten out and I have been asked by countless other organizations to help them as well. It is difficult to say no! But we have to be selective with our time and talents sometimes.

I support the Marathon because I am a huge Chicago booster. I think the event is good for the city, ham radio and emergency communication.

If you have an interest in helping with any of these planned events, drop me a line. As for the unplanned events, the best thing is to become engaged with a local EMA office, or served agency. They are all looking for good volunteers.

73 Rob
K9RST@arrl.net

Check those connections

It all started with Don Whiteman. He declared he was off to his annual summer vacation and was going to be monitoring 40 meters. In the past, this has been a fun way to connect with Don and make sure my station was working. Well, that is where things went sideways.

I called Don on his frequency and he reported my signal was very, very weak. Plus, I was blasting RF throughout my basement shack. RF into the stereo sound system. It was even making a work light at my edit console flash on and off! This had never happened to me before…and obviously signaled that something was very wrong.

As a rule, hams are a hardy, independent lot. We like to solve our own problems. And so I set out on a journey to track down the issues. Of course, I never seem to have the time to just sit down in one setting and do it – other duties call: wife, family, work, club assignments – which is to say that it has taken much longer than I had expected.

I started at the rig. My grandson likes to pretend he is on the radio and often pushes buttons or dials he shouldn’t but that seemed fine. I changed jumper cables, tried different bands (this only happened on the 40/80 dipole). I check connections, the Internet and mentioned it to a few of you. Eventually, I braced for what seemed like the most obvious choice…check out the antenna. Well, that is not so easy. You see, I have one leg of my dipole strung up on a parkway tree, but the easiest access is to walk through my neighbor’s backyard to release the support rope. Last year, the older lady who owned that house and never minded, moved and sold the house to a young couple. I have tried to explain my antenna farm to him in the past, but I could clearly see that it made no sense whatsoever. Lots of questions, some leading, some naïve, all with a twinge of attitude that suggested: “Do I really have to put up with this junk next door!” So, the point is, I try not to ruffle feathers, but I did need to explain that I had to bring the antenna down and see if it was ok, which meant I would like to walk through his backyard. He shrugged approval and moved on to the kids and their pool. My wife was never keen on this stealth operation so I had to do my work when both were gone. Now, dipoles are best done with two people…but hey, you see the time constraint I was under and I was certain this would be a very quick fix. I found my opportunity last Sunday when the neighbors went to Church. I had an hour. It was intensely hot outside, so I knew my wife would not be outside either…so I start operation “Drop Down!”

I jump through the bushes and released the support rope and ran back to my yard to check out the antenna. But, the rope was stuck. A knot in the rope was snagged on a branch. I tugged and pulled, but I could not get it free. I put all of my weight into it and all that happened was some branch near the top would sway. Now I was getting concerned. I went inside the house and made a cup of coffee to think of other ways to release the rope. When I returned, I pulled the rope aggressively and suddenly it was free! So I pulled the dipole down and discover a major slice just below the connector. So, I fixed the cut and went to pull the antenna back up.

God and physics work in mysterious ways. So, I am back in my neighbor’s yard, and I am pulling the support rope back up…only to hit that snag again. Got binoculars out and found that I had placed that rope in the perfect yoke of a branch. Right through the “Y” and the knot could not climb over the valley. I brought the rope down and added some electrical tape, thinking it would help ease the way. Nothing. I tugged, I pulled, I swung on the rope with all my weight. I wrapped the rope around a pipe and used that as a lever. Nothing. Checked my watch and church was to be over in about 10 minutes. The neighbors would be back soon. I took a bio break and sat to think what to do? I could reshoot? I could re-tie the knot? I decided I would give it one more try. This is where God and Physics come together. I went back to the support rope and gave it a big pull and suddenly found there was no resistance! The knot was free. Somehow, the wind, moving the branch, and the gentle pressure on the line did the work! Who needed all of that brut strength! I was thrilled and started to effortlessly pull and pull and pull…and wait…this seemed like I was pulling too much! Sure enough, the knot holding the rope on the other side came loose and was free. I was pulling the antenna down! This is where a buddy would have helped but you know how that goes. I did get the antenna up before the neighbors were home.

Is there a moral to this tale? Many, I am sure but I am using this as a plug for you to attend Dave Hewitt’s talk at our August 12 meeting about setting up your HF station, and advising you to make sure you check ALL your connections – with your spouse, your neighbors and your antenna!

73 Rob K9RST

This is your brain on Field Day

Field Day is fresh in our minds. Thanks to every single one of you who were able to attend or participate. It was a fabulous weekend event…and hot!

Three days before Field Day, I was making my way to my storage locker to pull Field Day equipment to be staged in my garage. I was also chatting with some other members of the team who were doing the same for their own departments. All the while, I kept thinking, why are we doing this? What is the purpose of Field Day? I even sent myself a little voice memo…basically reciting the ARRL party line: Field Day is an opportunity to show our communities what ham radio can do in the event of a disaster. I guess that is rationale for fighting the heat, the bugs and the weather. Still, it does seem kind of crazy. I mean, we had a whole year to plan. How many disasters give you that much lead time? So, that definition doesn’t really hit the mark. Then I got to thinking, Field Day is really about sacrifice. People willing to go to extraordinary lengths to complete a task. That seems like a better working definition and certainly better characterizes the ham radio people I know. For some of us, there was the intensive week of prep time away from family and work. For others, it was giving up a valuable weekend to practice our radio skills. On Friday, we had about 20 people sweating in the hot June sun to set up antennas and towers. They could have easily stayed home to watch soccer or read a good book. Instead, they joined in on the brutally, tough work, on a scolding summer heat. I know, we aren’t getting younger and the tasks are becoming more physically demanding. The point seems to be that Field Day demonstrates the sacrifice we would make to help our communities. And it is not just the leadership team that makes sacrifices.

When it came to operating radios, even that can be arduous and demand sacrifice. Ask Bill Lederer what it is like to sit for 12 hours straight working CW! Or try 80 meters on a stormy summer night! Your hearing goes batty; your voice becomes raspy and tired and you lose your brain. Or imagine what your brain is like after working 20 hours to set up and then you operate for 4 intense hours on radio duty. At 6 am, suddenly, all of the calls sound like alphabet soup. It takes a large number of dedicated folks to brave the elements administer this self-inflicted stress, to make the sacrifice.

There are rewards as well. Watching the young and old working on HF for the first time and catching the fever of making contacts can be thrilling. Or the excitement of commanding the band with a commanding run until you or your logger drop. It is rewarding to introduce people to this hobby who had no idea what this thing could be; it is showing our public service officials see what we can do. It is explaining to our elected officials why Field Day even exists. And, yes, it is also for seeing old friends. It was great to see Mike Wolf, return back with family in tow or seeing Leo, sporting his 4 day beard! For me, I was really glad to see Greg Lapin. He served as my Field Day operating mentor years back (and thanks for being part of the clean-up crew).

I had the opportunity to teach 15 Cub Scouts about radio, electronics and fun. Wow, it was really a treat to see something that you spend days working on come to life.

Then there are the unsung heroes…many of you don’t know Greg Karlove…but he spent many hours behind the scenes creating tools to solve some of our more vexing problem. How do you put a two inch mast into a tower with a 1-1/2 channel? How do you make waterproof connectors for the towers? How do we hoist a 300 pound tower without killing anyone? Dave Hewitt spent weeks and lots of personal resources creating an attractive GOTA station, and he let us use two of his personal K3 rigs. He had hoped to bring in a Flex radio for display, but when Ron Settle could not make FD because of a family crisis, we had to drop that from the menu. Ron Settle, Mark Klocksin, Ron Harroff and Don Whiteman spent two solid days building the 40 meter beam…then Murphy showed up. Thanks to the quick thinking of Warren Pugh, Jordan Kaplan and others with multiple runs to the hardware store, we got that beam up in the air and working. You may not know that Ed Burckart always puts in the ground rods and has made it his duty to take them out. This is no small task, and in the heat we face it was scary tough. Don Whiteman, Mark Klocksin, Randy Brothers, Dave Hewitt, Warren Pugh spent weeks tweaking the rigs to make sure they worked properly and interfaced with the computer for logging. How about the chefs, Larry Leviton and John Wass? Did anyone thank them for the hours they stood behind a steaming hot grill, in 90 degree heat cooking burgers for us? Chuck Saunders and Hy Alexander accepted the job of leading the antenna mounting team with no real experience in doing this job. We needed some leaders and they accepted the responsibility and handle it well. Sacrifice.

Field Day is great fun, but it demands real sacrifices by many, many people to be successful. I have been chair of this event for 15 years…and I am very, very grateful to all of you for sharing the load. You have to understand, before I was President of this club, I was Scoutmaster for a Boy Scout Troop with 100 scouts. I love camping and the outdoors…and so this is my chance to continue that tradition. Plus, I always wanted to go on some DXpeditions…and Lake Forest might be the farthest I ever get!!

A couple of years back, we divided some of the Field Day the responsibilities: I took on most of the bonus point issues and physical support (the three T’s: towers, antennas, tents) and Randy Brothers managed all of the operating tents and related issues. Since then, we have developed some strong band captains and a great leadership team. Together with all of you, we have made this a true Club event. And one that I am very proud to be part of. Field Day is very much worth the sacrifices we all make for it every year.

Thank you,

Rob, K9RST