The Amateur Amateur: It’s Not Easy Being Green-less
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
ARRL Contributing Editor
Many years ago, my grandfather used to build radio sets and sell them to his neighbors. Somewhat later, just after World War II, he and my father installed radios in cars for Western Auto. They saved up their earnings and eventually started Hoffman Radio-Television Sales and Service, which was the premiere TV shop in Savannah, Georgia for a number of years.
Electronics clearly ran in the family. I figured that one day I, too, would learn about it. I’d know all about tubes and resistors and what all those funny knobs on an oscilloscope did. I didn’t have any particular notion about working at the TV shop, but I did assume that I’d pick up electronics, probably by osmosis.
It never happened. Oh, I got into the consumer end of it, playing with transistor radios and tape recorders and such. But I never really knew how any of it worked. It was my brother Chris who learned it all. He was the one who learned all about electronics and became the ham radio operator, K1KC.
There were probably two reasons why I never picked up electronics. The first was that I was a very passive kid; I just waited for things to fall into place, I didn’t go out and try to make them happen. The second reason was that I turned out to be color blind. Well, red-green color deficient, to be more precise. I couldn’t read the color code on resistors. I suspect that when my dad discovered this fact, it may have dampened any thoughts he may have had about bringing me into the business.
Entering Another Dimension
In 1967, I enlisted the Air Force. During basic training, I was presented with a list of jobs that I could potentially perform. I picked out three having to do with electronics. Great! Someone was finally going to teach me about tubes and capacitors and such! They gathered us electro-geeks-to-be together in a room. The very first thing that the instructor said was, “Before we start, is anyone here color blind?”
I timidly raised my hand.
I have to state here that my parents rarely included me in important discussions about my own health. If I was sick, they talked to the doctors, but they often failed to tell me what illness I had. And likewise the whole color blind thing wasn’t presented to me as a fact, more like a passing remark.
So when the Air Force instructor asked if anyone was color blind, I thought I was, but didn’t know for sure. (Hey, you have to be color blind before you can understand.)
The instructor was clearly startled that one dumb recruit had actually raised his hand. Nevertheless, he was prepared. He wrote a building number on a piece of paper and told me to go there.
I got to the building and went inside.
They seemed to be expecting me. They told me to look at a bunch of charts that covered with colored dots. They asked me what numbers I saw.
I didn’t see any numbers at all on most of them. That seemed pretty ominous to me.
At the conclusion of the test I was given another piece of paper and told to go to another building.
I got to that building, which was fairly small, knocked on the door and went inside.
There was one officer in the room, sitting behind the single desk. He asked if I was Airman Hoffman. I said that I was.
He opened a desk drawer, which contained just three folders, and extracted one. It had my name on it.
He pulled out the one sheet of paper that was in the folder, looked at it, and said, “Yep, you’re color blind.”
I started to get freaked out. I had just finished taking the color vision test and then had come straight to this building. There was no phone visible in the room, and no one could have passed me on the way. Other than giving him my name, I’d said nothing to the officer. I was afraid that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere on the base and wandered into the Twilight Zone.
The officer reached into his desk drawer again and extracted the second of the three folders. He opened it, pulled out its single piece of paper and handed it to me.
It was a list of all jobs that I might potentially perform in the Air Force that didn’t require normal color vision.
I wanted to get the heck out of there before he got to the third folder. I quickly scanned the list, saw that one job started with the word “electronic” and said, “I’ll take that one.” The job? Electronic Data Processing Operator, which launched my career as a computer geek.
I got out of the building as fast as I could and didn’t look back. Let some other hapless airman find out what was in folder number three.
Sparking an Interest
Let us jump forward to 1994.
Now I’d been through a war of my own, had gotten married, gone through college on the GI Bill and worked as a computer programmer at a medical school. My main hobby was listening to police scanners.
But it wasn’t a good time for monitoring enthusiasts. The cell phone industry had successfully lobbied to make it illegal to even listen to certain parts of the radio spectrum. Various states were passing laws making it illegal to have a police scanner in your vehicle. About the only way to protect yourself was to have a ham radio license, which served as a get-out-of-jail-free card. At least, that’s what we were told (and what we all wanted to believe).
I didn’t have any particular interest in Amateur Radio at the time, but several things made me decide to go ahead and get a license. First, the FCC had just dropped the Morse code requirement for an entry-level license. Second, the leader of our police scanner club was about to teach a course on getting that entry-level license. Third, my wife Nancy -- in a move that still boggles my mind -- said that she also wanted to take that course. And fourth, it would be an opportunity for me to finally learn something about electronics.
Nancy and I took the course, passed our exams and got our ham tickets in early 1995.
Everything changed after that. My interest in police scanners waned and I became much more involved with ham radio. Nancy and I worked our way up through the Amateur Radio license classes until we got our Amateur Extra class tickets -- and yes, we did have to learn some Morse code. We were Volunteer Examiners for a while, and still are, at least on paper. We fooled around with various different aspects of the hobby. I eventually found my niche in emergency communications and I’m very active in the local ARES® group.
Sadly, I never did learn much about electronics. Oh sure, I learned some things. But I still can’t read a circuit diagram, and I most certainly would not try to repair a radio.
Making Lists and Checking Them Twice
What happened? Well, the hobby changed. It is no longer necessary to learn a lot about electronics. No, let me modify that statement. It is no longer a requirement. But I still could have gone on and learned on my own, right? So why didn’t I?
I meant to. I have a soldering iron (very dangerous in my hands), and even a box of bargain basement resistors. Of course, I can’t read the codes on them. Still color blind, you see.
I have books on electronics in my study. I’ve taken a few stabs at them. But every time I do it becomes apparent that it’s going to take more than 10 minutes to learn anything. There’s no way I’m going to pick up electronics by leisure reading. It’s going to take a concentrated effort.
And now we come down to my to-do lists. I’ve probably mentioned them before. There are many of them. They’ve accumulated over the last 50 years or so. Some of the lists contain urgent things that absolutely must be done. Others are merely important. And way down at the bottom of the pile are the lists of things I’d like to do, but which have to wait until the priority things are done. On one of those lists there is a line that reads:
#99 -- Learn electronics
Well, ahead of item #99 is learn to play a musical instrument, become proficient in Esperanto, become a famous cartoonist and so on. Yeah, the list of things I’d like to do is very long indeed.
I’m sure I'll get some things done. I just don’t know how far down the list I’ll get. Learning electronics would bubble up much higher on the list if someone would come up with a cure for red-green color blindness.
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 website. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.