The Amateur Amateur: Musings from a Hamfest
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Yawn! Where am I, anyway? I can’t see half of the street signs until I’m almost past them. Why do all these hamfests start so early, anyway? Dawn is hours away. There’s no one on the road except me.
Oy! And those 50 other vendors who got here ahead of me and took all of the good parking spaces! Looks like I’m going to have to make several trips between my car and the ARES® booth. It’s too far to try lugging everything in one go.
Know what I wish someone would invent? A module that I could attach to the back of my car. It would contain everything that I want to sell, give away or just display. It would detach from my car with the flip of a switch. It would be self-propelling and would follow me into the convention hall. It would be flexible enough to get through narrow doors, around sharp corners and over carts full of junk that other vendors have temporarily parked in the middle of the aisle. It would putter along to the ARES® assigned space, then would automatically open up into a complete display. All that I would have to do is straighten a leaflet or two -- and then go get a doughnut.
And by the way, do people really purchase hot dogs at 6 in the morning? The very thought makes my stomach churn.
Ah, I see that Steve is already here. He’s already got the ARES® sign erected and all of the literature spread out (looks like he’s brought some donated items to sell, as well). He doesn’t look happy, but I’m sure that I don’t either. I probably look barely alive. Various parts of me are still asleep, that’s for sure.
“Uh, Steve, could you help me with this vendor wrist band?”
This is embarrassing. I’m an Assistant Emergency Coordinator of St Louis County ARES® and I’m not coordinated enough to put on my own wrist band. Certainly not at 6 in the morning. I see that Steve managed to get his own wrist band on without help. But then he is the Emergency Coordinator. He can do anything.
Hmmmmm. Our tables seem rather sparse today. I don’t understand that. Our stuff completely filled two SUVs to the brim and yet it barely covers two small tables. Are the laws of physics different at hamfests? Probably not, but I know for a fact that they are different in the cargo spaces of cars.
Just a few people seem to be stopping by the table, scanning our sale items. They’re not looking at the ARES® literature at all.
Ah, I forgot. The hamfest hasn’t started yet. These are just other vendors, checking out the competition. What time is it, anyway? It’s still dark. One of these days they’re going to start hamfests so early that they take place entirely in the dark. Once the Sun comes up everyone will go home.
I think some vendors already operate that way.
“I’m going to get a hot dog,” Steve says.
“Okay,” I reply.
Yuck! Hot dogs for breakfast! But then, Steve may have worked the graveyard shift again. It may be dinner time for him.
Come to think of it, my own stomach is starting to awaken. But hot dogs this early? No way! Maybe a nice sugar-coated doughnut and a Coke. That should get my blood pumping.
I see a lot of bartering taking place. It really is true that much of the good stuff gets sold before the doors open. I saw it happen at the last hamfest. Jim, one of our ARES® members, was rolling a cart full of goodies to a table he’d rented for himself. The cart was almost empty by the time he’d reached his assigned spot.
Steve has returned with his hot dog.
I’m starting to get hungry. I wonder what else they’re selling at the snack bar?
Neither Steve nor I have said much since I arrived. I know that we will start discussing ARES® plans and exchanging gossip at some point, but I think we both need more caffeine first.
Steve seems alert now. He’s about to tell me something.
“ATTENTION VENDORS! JUST 30 MINUTES UNTIL THE DOORS OPEN!”
That happens every single time. If someone is talking to me, one of the hamfest organizers just has to pick up the microphone and make a super-amplified, generally pointless announcement. Some hamfests are barely tolerable, with announcements being bellowed every two or three minutes. Even the cockroaches flee the hall.
Steve tells me his news. It’s important enough for me to write down. I sure won’t remember it by the time the hamfest is over. Memory problems, especially face recognition, are a personal failing that I wish that I could correct. People come up and smile at me and I’m sure that I’ve met them before, but I can’t place the face. I have to see a person quite a few times before their face burns into my memory.
At least at hamfests most people wear something with their call sign on it. That helps.
“THE DOORS ARE OPENING!”
That was fast. Time was creeping along at a snail’s pace once we’d set up our tables. Now it seems to be zooming by. My sense of time will probably change several times before the day is over.
Here come the hams. They’re pouring in. Smile. Smile. Smile.
Okay, smiling isn’t helping. No one is stopping at our table. Wait. Someone is stopping. He’s interested in something on our table. Oh. The freebie handout. And our free button, of course. By the end of the hamfest everyone will be wearing one of those.
“How much is this?” someone asks.
Steve tells him.
The fellow fishes out his wallet.
I just don’t understand this. I bring useful, functional items and I can’t sell them. I keep dropping the prices and still can’t sell them. Steve brings in odd items that people have donated to ARES®, much of which is obsolete, is missing parts or just doesn’t work. That stuff sells.
Okay, now we’ve got a good crowd at our table, but all of them have their backs turned to us. They’ve just parked here to chat. No one can even see our table now. It would be rude to ask them to move on, but I am sorely tempted to yell, “Look out for the python!”
Finally, they’ve moved on.
A fan of my column has stopped and is grinning at me. I probably should know his name, but as I said, my face-recognition facility isn’t up to par. I feel bad about not knowing who he is. Would he notice if I snuck a peek at his badge?
“You shaved your beard!” he says.
“Most of it fell out,” I admit.
I hate getting old. Years ago my father-in-law warned me not to do that. I should’ve listened.
Our District Emergency Coordinator has arrived. He looks like he has something important that he wants to tell us.
“ATTENTION! THE FIRST DRAWING WILL BE IN 13 MINUTES! WE WILL BE GIVING AWAY A FREE COPY OF THE POPULAR BOOK...”
...and so on and so forth. The DEC has left our table. I sure hope that Steve managed to hear what he said. I didn’t catch a single word.
“What did he say?” I ask.
Steve opens his mouth.
“ATTENTION! THE SNACK BAR IS OPEN! THEY ARE SELLING DELICIOUS...”
...blah-blah-blah. I’ll ask Steve again later.
Ah, a potential customer. Please, no more announcements for at least a minute.
“Where is the drum for the raffle tickets?” the fellow asks.
“That way,” Steve and I say in unison, pointing across the room.
Another potential customer. He’s actually looking at one of my items. Oh joy!
“I had one of these,” he says. “It was a piece of junk!”
Why, when I’m trying to sell an item, does someone always camp out in front of my table and spend half an hour exclaiming in a loud voice what a piece of junk it is? If you don’t want it, just walk away! It’s like setting up a picket line in front of my table and chanting, “Don’t buy Gary’s stuff! Don’t buy Gary’s stuff!”
In the meantime, Steve has managed to sell all of the Anderson Powerpoles, three field cookbooks and a copy of the novice class license exam book from 1968. The outraged non-customer is still ranting in my face. All I can do is shrug. Would he go away if I gave him a free button?
“When do I get my SKYWARN number?” someone asks.
“You want the SKYWARN booth over there,” Steve says, pointing.
“Where is the drum for the...”
“Over there,” Steve and I say together.
And so it goes, hour after hour, day after day, week after week -- or so it seems. I’ve completely lost track of time. But wait, some vendors are starting to pack up. That means it’s a mere three hours before the end of the hamfest.
Steve is now in an earnest conversation with someone over ------ gasp! ARES® issues! That means we’ve made our quota, one potential recruit.
There are ways to get more hams involved with emergency communications, but our budget is too tight for us to hire attractive models wearing form-fitting ARES® safety vests. Our budget does allow for the free buttons, but only because I buy and assemble them myself.
Two hours until the end of the hamfest and half of the vendors are now gone. I missed my chance to pick up some connectors and an antenna switch. I should’ve made the rounds before doors opened.
“Where is the...?”
Steve makes a quick run over to the raffle drum and drops off both his tickets and mine. We’ve both won small items in the past, so we keep buying tickets. I actually won a handheld transceiver one time, so I guess I’m ahead.
Several friends stop by the table. They are not early birds, they’ve just arrived. I hope they are able to find something they want, the pickings are pretty slim.
Chuck looks at the meager fare on the ARES® table, takes pity on me and buys something that he doesn’t really need. I maintain my dignity and manage not to kiss his hand and blubber my thanks.
We stand and watch as more vendors pack up. There is still half an hour before the doors close, but most of them have already left.
Incredibly, a few more latecomers walk in and look around.
Steve and I smile at them. You never know who might be interested in emergency communications.
I wonder if there’s still time to get a hot dog?
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.