The Amateur Amateur: The Net Controller’s Speech
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
You’ve probably heard something surprising on the air. It may have been something unpleasant, like cursing or an off-color joke. It may have been an unexpected opportunity, such as a close-out sale at a local electronic store. Or it may have been something more shocking, like hearing that a friend has been hospitalized. But what goes through your head when you hear someone having a stroke right on the air?
It was me, and before I go any further, I’ll put your mind at ease and let you know that I wasn’t actually having a stroke. It only sounded like it.
The setting: My basement shack on a Wednesday evening. I was the net control operator for the St Louis County ARES weekly 2 meter voice net.
Everything was fine for the first few minutes. As I often do, I was sucking on a cough drop to keep my mouth moist. I was reading from my net script, just tooling along like I’ve done dozens of times before.
Only this time the words weren’t coming out right. The letter S sounded more like SH. Sharp sounds were beginning to sound all sloppy. And when I tried to give the ARES group’s Web site address, www.stlares.org -- it came out as “dubboo dubboo dubboo dot esh tee ehwwlll ay are ee esh dot oh are zzhheeee.” I kept trying to get that last letter out correctly, repeating it over and over again like a broken record. “Zheeee. Zzzzhhhheeeee. Zzzzzzzzzzzzhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”
Frustrated, I called the backup net controller (we always have one) and asked him to take over. “I’ve losshht my abiwity to shhpeak creawry,” I said. The backup operator jumped in and picked up the net where I’d left off.
I did not realize how much panic I’d just caused. Everything on the air seemed to be going smoothly. But at least one listener was scrambling to find my home phone number so she could call my wife and let her know that I was in the basement having a stroke.
Curiously, I wasn’t thinking along those lines at all. I was puzzled as to why my mouth wouldn’t work like it was supposed to, but having no headache, pain, paralysis or any other symptoms, it never occurred to me that something Really Bad might be happening.
Being a typical ham radio operator, I started to analyze the problem. And as is usually the case, I came to the wrong conclusion. I read the words “oral anesthetic” on the bag of cough drops. Aha! The cough drops made my mouth go all wonky! I thought. I spit out the one I was sucking on.
Several minutes and many oral exercises later, it seemed as if my speech had returned to normal. www.stlares.org. “Oh are gee. Gee. Gee. Gee.” Much better. I checked in to the net as a regular participant. When asked for comments, with crisp enunciation I announced that I was all right, that some off-brand cough drops had caused my mouth to momentarily go numb.
As soon as the net finished, a number of folks called and told me how relieved they were that I was okay. I thanked them for their concern and thought nothing more about the incident.
A few days later I found that I had been entirely wrong about the cough drops. It seemed that my mouth went all sloppy any time that I ate something, and stayed that way for perhaps half an hour. The symptoms weren’t consistent, but that’s what happened in general.
Without going into a lot of medical history, I’ll just say that earlier in the year I’d suffered some small “events” that had caused me to have double vision for several weeks. The vision had cleared up by itself. I now believed that this new symptom, which I called “rubber mouth,” was related to the earlier problem. Unlike the double vision, however, I feared that the rubber mouth problem was here to stay.
That was a depressing thought. I was a ham radio operator. More than that, my niche was emergency communications. Clear, concise, understandable communications. What could I do if I were deployed? Talk on the radio for five minutes and then take half-hour breaks to wait for my mouth to return to normal? And as the ARES net manager, how could urge my cadre of net controllers to use “cleeewwrr conshisshhe commooonicassshhhhunsshhh”?
The first thing I did was to remove the cough drops from my shack. They weren’t really the cause of the problem, but just looking at them made sweat break out on my forehead.
The second thing I did was to take a bottle of water down to the shack just before starting a net. It wasn’t a cure, but sipping water did seem to get my mouth back in working order for a minute or two. During a half-hour net I gulped down quite a lot of it.
The third thing that I did was try not to consume anything just before getting on the air. That proved difficult, as my wife and I have busy work schedules and we have only a narrow window of opportunity to prepare and eat dinner on Wednesday evenings.
Well, we do the best we can. My subsequent stints as net controller weren’t disastrous, but my speech was still far from crisp. I was embarrassed, and I knew that many net participants were feeling sorry for me.
Those were bad days. Mentally I felt fine, but verbally feared that I sounded somewhat drunk. A lot of folks have successfully dealt with speech impediments, but this was all new to me. Could I adjust? I just didn’t know. I was not at all happy.
And then something strange happened. One evening I was unable to take my medications; everyone my age has a bucket-load of pills that they take every day. That’s not really a cause for alarm. One day without meds is no big deal. But I also missed a second day…
..and on the third day I felt more alert than I’d felt in months. More alive. Even more productive! I felt so good that after work I took Nancy my wife out to dinner. We sat in the restaurant, eating and chatting and laughing. And suddenly I had an urge to verbalize the ARES website address. This didn’t alarm my wife, as she’d become accustomed to hearing me “test” my speech from time to time.
“www.stlares.org,” I said in a clear voice. “Good grief, I can speak!”
Nancy nodded and said, “Not only that, you look different. You’d been looking like one of those runny-faced characters in the Dick Tracy comic strip. Now you look and sound like Robert Vaughn again.” (Nancy and I dated back during the era of spy movies. Robert Vaughn was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And I always thought she looked like Diana Rigg, Mrs Peel from The Avengers.)
That was just about the sexiest thing she could have said to me. I sat up straight and gave her my best steely-eyed gaze.
What had happened? Why had I suddenly gone from Puddle-Face to Napoleon Solo?
“The medications!” we both said in unison.
Sure enough, it was one of my daily pills. Thinking back, I had, indeed, started taking a new pill right around the time that my speech had become slurred.
I talked to my doctor the next day and was immediately switched to a different, much more innocuous medication.
Now my speech is back to normal, thank goodness. When it’s my turn to be net controller, I find myself speaking a little sharper than normal, as if I’m trying to undo my earlier sad performance. It feels great.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll put the cough drops back in the shack.
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.