The Amateur Amateur: Field Day 0.9
Two years ago Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, did a goodwill tour of several Field Day sites in St Louis County. Steve is the Emergency Coordinator of St Louis County ARES®. I tagged along, took some photos, got soaking wet (both from sweat and rain) and wrote about it in my column Field Day, an Etude in Three Movements. Last year, Steve had to work and asked me to make the goodwill tour for him, which I did. I count those two years as Field Day 0.3 and 0.4.
This year -- finally -- I was a bona fide Field Day participant. I set up a laptop computer and a 2 meter transceiver at the St Louis & Suburban Radio Club's (SLSRC) site and ran some packet-based systems. Nominally, that would've made this year Field Day 1.0 for me, but since I didn't make any contacts, I have to say that I've only reached Field Day 0.9.
The SLSRC and St Louis County ARES are two very separate entities, but SLSRC has been very kind to our ARES group. The club always has a sizeable and well-attended Field Day event, and this year it invited ARES to set up a station at its site. Since I knew that Steve was going to be doing his goodwill tour again this year, I volunteered to take the first shift at the SLSRC site's ARES table.
I have to confess that we -- ARES -- weren't well prepared. I think it was because Field Day hasn't been one of our regularly scheduled events and we just never talked about it in our planning committee meetings. Nevertheless, we wanted to supplement, rather than duplicate, all of the other activities taking place at the SLSRC site. That being the case, I figured I would try to run some sort of packet radio station and perhaps handle some formal traffic as well. It was a pretty vague plan, but I did know that Craig Klimczak, K4LSU, would be doing something similar at the St Louis Amateur Radio Club (SLARC) site (I know, the names of the groups are starting to get confusing).
It was hot in St Louis that day. It usually is on Field Day, but it was exceptionally hot this year. Officially, it never broke 99 degrees, but with the heat index figured into the equation it was close to a million. When I arrived at the SLSRC Field Day site, I saw that Mark Biernacki, KB5YZY, had set up a cooling station. It consisted of a van with a big air conditioner hanging out of one window. The other windows had been covered with thermal blankets. A canopy was attached to the entrance to the van to form a shady porch (or perhaps an airlock).
I had brought a canopy with me as well, but the site manager, Don Meyer, KD0JBN, pointed out that a picnic table had been set aside for ARES under the main pavilion. Wonderful! That was one less thing that I had to carry from my car. Even better, there was a beautiful oak desk ornament with our ARES group's call sign sitting on the table. It was a donation from Cliff Rozar, KC0SDV, who makes them commercially.
Several volunteers were gracious enough to help me unload my car, so I got everything stashed under the pavilion in record time. Setting up my station, however, didn't go quite so quickly.
If you've ever operated at a Field Day event, and especially if you were supposed to bring items, you know that, without fail, you will forget something. In my case I didn't quite forget the missing item; it was more a matter of it being mislabeled. I had wanted to put up a banner proclaiming ST LOUIS COUNTY AMATEUR RADIO EMERGENCY SERVICE. I had the right container, but the wrong banner was inside of it. The banner I had brought said HAM RADIO DEMONSTRATION. Since I was sure that everyone had already figured that out, I didn't bother putting up the banner.
Having set up field stations on numerous occasions, I have developed at least modest skills at doing so. But I must say that setting up a digital station in the field compounds the complexity of the task. Getting my computer wired and up and running always takes a lot of time. And well before I had finished, Mark, who is the SLSRC's president, was standing on a bench announcing that the official start of Field Day operations was 5 minutes away.
Mark is a great fellow. He is smart, generous and impossibly energetic. And -- when he wants to be -- quite loud (try to imagine the late pitchman Billy Mays running on high octane). Mark warned us about the excessive heat and, in no uncertain terms, demanded that we drink lots of water.
I was well prepared for that, at least. I had a cooler with ice, water and even a washcloth. I used all three quite liberally during the event (an icy washcloth across the forehead can perform wonders on a hot day).
When the event started at 1 PM local time, there was an immediate blitz of activity all around me. There were operators everywhere, and it seemed that surely every conceivable mode and frequency was being used. Factually, though, I knew that at least some modes weren't being used, so I hastened to get my digital station up and running.
It's always a hassle. It works moderately well back home in my shack, but anytime that I go out into the field, things stop working. I know for a fact that it has to do with things being plugged and unplugged. The computer gets confused. The TNC (terminal node controller) gets confused. The applications software gets confused. But above all, Windows XP gets confused. Now, most of the time I'm happy with Windows XP. For me, at least, it has been vastly more stable than its predecessors. But one sure way to crash my laptop computer is to unplug something from a USB port while I'm running packet radio.
"So, don't unplug anything!" you are saying.
Well, if I want to switch from one packet operation to another (say go from dumb terminal packet to Winlink) or even just change frequencies on my radio, I have to unplug the TNC. I don't know why. It's just a fact. And since it always causes my computer to display the Blue Screen of Death, I usually shut down everything first.
Yes. It made for a long turn-around time. So I did it as little as possible.
Most of the time, though, I was banging away on the keyboard, sending out messages and getting no response. I kept wondering when Craig Klimczak was going to appear on the Missouri Emergency Packet Network or respond to my Winlink e-mail messages. I didn't know that he was having problems of his own at the SLARC site and would not be able to get his packet station on the air.
While I was waiting for replies someone came up and bellowed, "Are you drinking water!?"
I heard that a lot. Apparently Mark had a squad of water-enforcement marshals running around making sure that no one got so engrossed in operating that they failed to keep themselves hydrated. I would assure the enforcers that I was fine and wave my water bottle at them, but they always eyed me suspiciously. I wanted to say, "It's not the heat, I always look this terrible." But I didn't think that would help my case.
My station had occasional visitors. Quite a few local ham radio operators are members of both ARES and the SLSRC, so I knew many of the people at the site. Some of them came over to chat for a while. Two people did show more than a casual interest in what I was doing. I managed to convince one of them, Kyle Albertina, KC9IMA, to sit down and generate a Winlink message.
Chuck Wehking, N0EIS, came by quite often. He was also very concerned about everyone staying cool and hydrated. He'd brought a lot of bottled water, and at some point he ran out, bought a small fan and plunked it down in front of my face. Did I really look worse than everyone else?
Maybe so, because Harry Ferris, K0QS, came up and asked, "What flavor snow cone would you like?"
I had noticed that someone had brought a machine that made chipped ice, but I hadn't known that they had a complete snowcone station on hand.
"Cherry," I replied.
Harry returned a few minutes later with a cherry snowcone. And let me tell you, while I had that snowcone in my hand, all of the problems of the day melted away. Later, however, I found that the snowcone had dripped into my go-bag. I spent a lot of time the next day cleaning the cherry goo off of my equipment.
I only stayed at the site for three hours, but Steve, the Emergency Coordinator, showed up just as I was tearing down my station, so there was a continued ARES presence.
I doubt that I earned the SLSRC Field Day effort any points, especially since I didn't make any contacts. But now that I think about it, I did get a response to one of my Winlink e-mail messages. It was from my wife Nancy, who was putting in overtime at her job. Does that make it Field Day 0.99?
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