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The Amateur Amateur: Doing It in the Street

08/21/2008 Just to make my request a little more palatable, I had promised to bring handouts for a number of neighborhood readiness programs. I hadn't realized how difficult it would be to obtain them and wound up creating several of them myself. In particular, I completely revamped our St Louis County ARES flyer. I even cranked out a box full of Amateur Radio promo buttons for the occasion.

In fact, I was so focused on the promotional material that I didn't pay much attention to what I was actually going to do at the block party. I did have a field station, but hadn't used it or tested it in ages. For that matter, I wasn't completely sure where all the components were.

Gimme Shelter

One thing that I did know was that it was going to be hot. It had been sweltering for days, and it looked like National Night Out was going to be Hot-And-Muggy-Night-Out in St Louis. And despite the name of the event, at least some of it would take place during daylight hours. I decided that I was going to need some sort of shelter.

My wife Nancy had given me a fold-up canopy for Christmas, but I had yet to take it out of its box; in fact, it still had a large Christmas bow wrapped around it. I figured I'd better make sure I knew how to set it up before I dragged it to the block party and amused my neighbors by playing "Goofy Sets Up a Tent." Fortunately, the manufacturers of the First Up canopy had both Goofy -- and me -- in mind when they designed the canopy. It went up just fine. And just in case I got careless and lost the instructions, they had stitched spare instructions with pictures right on the carrying case.

Those were busy days for me, and I kept delaying my preparations for National Night Out. When the day of the event arrived, other than having plenty of flyers, I was nowhere near ready.

Hot Child in the City

And neither were the weather forecasters. The first forecast of the day said that there was a 30 percent chance of rain that evening -- by noon it had increased to 50 percent. And by the time I left work, thunderstorms were expected to break out exactly at the start time of our block party. Not knowing whether or not there was even going to be a block party, I held off making any further preparations.

As predicted, wind gusts rolled through precisely when the block party was supposed to start. Sixty seconds after the gusts started, the power went out. But surprisingly, the power was off for only a minute or two, and even more surprisingly, the initial blast of wind wasn't followed by thunderstorms. There wasn't even a drop of rain.

I looked out the window and saw that Anne, the block captain, had set up barricades for the street party, and that my neighbors were beginning to congregate. I hustled over and asked if the event was still going to take place. Anne affirmed that it was.

Although the thunderstorms had not materialized, it was still quite cloudy. I no longer needed the canopy to shelter me from the sun, but I wasn't sure if I still might need it to protect my equipment from rain. Anne settled the issue by saying that she had a canopy all ready to go and that I could set up my equipment underneath it. I thanked her and rushed back to my house to get my field station.

Rock Around the Clock

I was now racing the clock. Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, was our ARES Emergency Coordinator. He had said that we should operate between 7-8:30 PM. I was already running late, so I literally threw everything I thought I might need into the back of my vehicle.

Naturally I forgot some key items. But I think of every ARES event as a classroom-in-the-field, so I view every mistake as a lesson. And the first lesson of the day was: Don't rush. I had completely forgotten that I had a checklist. If I'd gone through the checklist, I wouldn't have left anything behind.

I pulled my vehicle up to Anne's canopy. Some neighbors thoughtfully moved the street barricades aside for me. Perhaps it was the ARRL "Radio Communications" magnetic signs I'd stuck on the sides of my SUV. Or perhaps it was because they thought I was from a local radio station. Certainly all of the neighborhood kids thought so.

I started setting up my station and immediately discovered which items I'd forgotten to bring. Fortunately I was only half a block from my house, so it was not a disaster, only a delay. I knew I was in a poor location, so I debated about which mast I should erect.

Configuration #1 was a music speaker tripod and a 15 foot extendable swimming pool pole. The tripod and pole didn't mesh perfectly, so the combination wasn't 100 percent stable.

Configuration #2 was a satellite dish tripod and perhaps 30 feet of military surplus antenna mast. The tripod and mast didn't mesh perfectly, so that combination also wasn't 100 percent stable.

That's all I had. Both were cheap solutions, which was all that I could afford. I had no guying equipment, and no way to guy anything in the middle of a street party anyway. I really needed the height that the military mast would give me, but opted for the lighter, easier to manage aluminum pole instead. I made that decision because if any of the heavy military hardware fell on one of the neighborhood kids, I'd have been in deep, deep trouble.

And the kids were everywhere.

Luck was with me, and the 15 feet of lighter mast was sufficient for me to get out a good signal. I finished setting up my station, put the promotional flyers on a table, and made my first call.

Dancing in the Streets

I reached Steve, who was working a block party in Maryland Heights. Maryland Heights is some miles southwest of Florissant. Like me, Steve was in a poor location for radio propagation. Unlike me, however, he was working with a handheld transceiver rather than setting up a fixed station, and his signals were barely readable. He decided to return to his house and use his base station.

That's when I threw him a curve ball.

Anne happened to come over to see what I was doing just about the time I made solid contact with Steve. Not wanting to lose the opportunity to score points with my block captain, I asked if she'd like to send a message to another block captain in Maryland Heights. She seemed a little flustered but said okay. I quickly composed a short message about the weather and safety, read it to her and asked if it was acceptable. She said it was fine and told me to send it.

Steve and I have had a lot of practice sending and receiving National Traffic System (NTS) type messages on the ARES Net, so Anne's message went smoothly. The catch was that Steve was no longer at his local block party. He said that he would try to deliver the message to his own block captain, but couldn't guarantee that he could find him. I passed this information back to Anne and smiled apologetically. I figured I'd just lost a few points.

The Wind Beneath My Wings

I guess I was making some sort of impression, because there was always someone watching what I was doing. Gail, one of my neighbors, seemed fascinated. She asked a lot of intelligent questions. I knew the answers, of course, but the trick was not to make my responses too technical or too long-winded. And then Providence smiled on me, because Nancy, an Extra class ham herself, came over and started answering Gail's questions. I could tell that Gail really started getting it once Nancy started talking.

One thing that Gail really wanted to see was a response to Anne's message. She must have wished really hard, because Steve came back on the air and said that he had a message for Anne from his block captain.

Suddenly I was surrounded by people. Steve started relaying his message and I began to write it down. A bunch of kids got into a loud argument behind me, but some adult quickly shushed them. Everyone was listening intently. Then, right in the middle of the message, some wayward child drenched me and my message pad with his squirt gun. A parent went after the child and I did my best to keep writing on a soggy pad. I got to the end of the message, confirmed the spelling of a few items and thanked Steve. Turning to Anne, I told her it would take me a minute to decode the message because we were using some special abbreviations (ARL numbered messages). I quickly scribbled the message down in English, read it to Anne and told her I would give her a clean, dry copy the following day. She seemed impressed, so I guess I had earned back my lost points.

The wind started kicking up about then and all of my flyers went sailing off down the street. I saw lightning in the distant clouds, so I told Anne that I was going to pack up my station. I dismantled everything and tossed it into my SUV.

So, Mr DJ...

Back home once again, I realized that I hadn't handed out the Amateur Radio promo buttons and I hadn't even taken a camera with me (hence, no pictures of the event). Nancy came home a few minutes later and helped me to unload my vehicle.

"I think you did well," she said, hauling my go-bag into the house.

Then she smiled at me and said, "But one of the people who arrived as you were tearing down did say to me, 'I didn't know that your husband was a disc jockey!'"

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.

Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor



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