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The Amateur Amateur: Fun, Fatigue and Fur

07/23/2011

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
ARRL Contributing Editor

My wife Nancy and I have a very sweet dog named Ariel. As near as we can make out, Ariel is 95 percent Swedish Lapphund, absolutely beautiful and as furry as they come. During the summer months in Missouri, she sheds and the whole house becomes furry. The only fur-free zone is the basement, because Ariel doesn’t like to go down there.

My shack is in the basement.

Ariel hates it when I go down to my shack.

But I'm happy when I'm in my shack. It's cozy, in a crowded sort of way. Kind of like being packed into a space capsule, surrounded by electronics and ham-support gear. If I want something, all I have to do is swivel in my chair...

…and bump into something I’d forgotten was behind me.

Okay, maybe it’s more cramped than cozy. I always get my feet tangled in cables and speaker wires. And more often than not, swiveling my chair will result in a crash that causes one object to topple into another, rapidly turning into a spectacular special effects scene from a big-budget disaster movie.

I'm in my mid-sixties, and the cleanup gets harder every time.

And Ariel hates the noise.

But despite the close quarters, the sometimes frigid basement air, and the rumblings of the various laundry appliances, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I’m in my shack. Most of that is due to lint and dust bunnies, but nonetheless I do enjoy the sensation.

Gadgets and Gizmos Aplenty

Eventually, though, every Amateur Radio operator must excise himself from the comfort of his shack’s command chair and emerge from his ham-cave. This dramatic event usually takes place during Field Day.

The St Louis and Suburban Radio Club had invited our ARES® group to set up and operate the VHF/UHF digital stations at its Field Day site this year. We’d done it in the past and it had always been fun. Sometimes it rained and sometimes it was stiflingly hot and humid, but it was a chance to get the dust out of my lungs, so I volunteered to help.

I asked Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, our ARES® Emergency Coordinator, what he would like me to take to the site.

“How about a SSTV station?” he said.

“Okay, what else?”

“Bring some chairs if you can. I’ll bring everything else.”

“Sure thing,” I said, thankful that I was getting off easy. Last year I’d been a spry, youngish mid-sixtyish. This year I felt more an ancient, decrepit mid-sixtyish. A light load sounded very good to me.

All I needed was a transceiver and a laptop. I’d done SSTV before and the software (MMSSTV, written by Makoto Mori, JE3HHT) was still on my computer. I just had to call it up and refresh my memory on its operation. No sweat. I had plenty of pictures of Ariel online that I could test transmit.

Oh, right. I was going to need to take my digital camera as well.

And all of the cabling to connect the transceiver to the laptop.

Better start making a list.

I smiled inwardly. Bless Steve. He was going to take the ARES® trailer to the site. It already contained much of the stuff that we'd need. It had canopies, signs, ARES® promotional material...

A Human Pack Mule

Hmmmmm. I’d forgotten about power.

When I’d packed my SUV for field operations in the past it, was always tables and canopies that took up the most space. Steve was going to take care of those this year. I’d been so relieved that it had slipped my mind that though tables and canopies were the largest items, they weren’t the most burdensome ones. That honor went to the batteries.

Oh, the batteries.

I overdid it when I bought the batteries. I wanted to make sure that they would last as long as possible during a deployment, so I got big ones.

Big and heavy.

Really, really heavy. Especially when I have to carry them up from the basement.

I was no longer smiling when I put batteries on to-take list.

And I realized that along with batteries, I’d need cables, power distribution panels, so forth and so on. Fortunately, I kept all that stuff in one bag, and that bag was already packed.

But heavy.

It was difficult for me to comprehend how everything that I needed to haul up from the basement had gained weight since last year. I was taking less. Shouldn’t it weigh less? Yet every item seemed to have put on 20 pounds.

Well, health issues had caused me to lose some muscle mass. Maybe that was it.

Sigh. I figured I’d better take along my personal care stuff as well. Yet another bag.

There were also antennas, stands, masts and coaxial cable to pack.

This was getting unwieldy. I wasn’t getting away from my shack, I was taking my shack with me! I'd set up at Field Day several times in the past. I had taken equipment to ARES® exercises in the field. I’d even made a field deployment to-take list and had put it in my ARES® notebook. Why had I forgotten all that? Was dementia one of my problems as well?

No. (Well, probably not.) It was distraction. Bills, work, health, all the usual stuff. As much as I was looking forward to Field Day, I simply didn’t pay that much attention to getting ready for it. I was, nevertheless, able to figure out what I needed to take with me and start hauling it up from the basement.

I didn’t forget anything, but this year it was a lot harder to play stevedore.

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Ariel tried to help. She found the narrowest place along the path from the basement to the garage and laid down right there. She wouldn’t move. Clearly she was trying to tell me that a human of my age shouldn't be carrying objects heavier than she was, and that if anything needed to be put in the SUV, it was her. She obviously knew that I was going to a park.

Let me tell you that stepping over a sulking Swedish Lapphund while lugging huge batteries was no easy task. The balancing act alone was a major feat. And by the time I got everything to the garage -- not even into the SUV yet -- I was sweating profusely and every muscle in my body was trembling.

I sat down on the floor and stroked Ariel as I contemplated life, the universe and heart attacks.

Ariel accepted the petting, but beamed her disapproval at me for wearing myself out in such a pointless pursuit as putting batteries and bags in the garage. Running my hand through her fur was a much more worthy goal.

Right then I couldn't completely disagree with her.

But half an hour later, I was on my feet and at it again. I loaded up the SUV.

The batteries weren’t any lighter and there wasn’t any less stuff to move, but at least the lifting distance was minimal.

And there weren't any more stairs involved.

I got everything into the vehicle, stood back and tiredly admired my work. I tried very hard not to think about unloading it all at the site.

At least I’d had the foresight to do the packing the day before Field Day. I could get a good night’s sleep and recuperate. I closed up the SUV, headed inside and took a long, soothing shower.

Afterward I flopped into my La-Z-Boy. I’d survived the annual Ascent from the Shack with only a few pulled muscles and one mild hallucination about the baggage moving around on its own in the back of the SUV.

Nancy came into my study and said, “I haven’t seen Ariel in a while. Is she outside?”

“Umm, I’ll be right back,” I said, getting up out of my chair.

That moving baggage hadn’t been a hallucination after all. It had been a wagging tail.

Right behind the last battery.

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.



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