Gene Bartsch, WI7N
It takes more than a big-gun station to make a top operator.
The club meeting was nearly over, but Charlie hadn’t uttered a single word all evening. He was sitting in the rear of the room, which was also unusual. After 15 years of attending Lakes-of-Utah Contest Club meetings with him, I knew he always arrived early and raced inside as soon as the doors opened to get a front-row seat. The unhappy frown on his face worried me the most because Charlie was a cheerful person and that scowl was so out of character for him.
I casually glanced over my shoulder again. Charlie had been one of the club founders many decades ago, long before I’d even heard of ham radio, but I’d gotten to know him rather well during my time in the club. We’d been on several committees together and had both taken part in the same club DXpedition to Aruba. I’d never really thought about his age, but he had to be in his late 70s or early 80s and maybe he was having health problems.
As soon as the club president slammed down the gavel to end the meeting, I hurried to the back of the room. Charlie was still seated and gazing quietly at his fellow hams, some of whom were already leaving while others had gathered in groups to chat. I dropped into an empty chair next to Charlie. “Hey, are you okay tonight?”
“I’m going to miss it,” he said.
“Ham radio contesting.”
“What do you mean? What’s wrong? You aren’t sick, are you?”
“No, but I guess I’m simply too old for the hobby.”
“What makes you say that?”
He gave a long sigh. “There was a 160 meter contest last weekend.”
“I knew about it, but I was out of town on a business trip and didn’t operate. How were conditions?”
He didn’t answer me but instead stared off into space. Finally he said, “I’ve been a ham for 64 years and have always enjoyed contesting. I have a modest station and didn’t need to rank in the top-tier to have fun. I always enjoyed giving points to other people and watching signal propagation change from hour to hour.”
“Me, too. So?”
“I had measles when I was a child and have been stone deaf in my left ear ever since.”
“I didn’t know that.” Bringing up his childhood illness wasn’t a good sign and I couldn’t imagine where he was taking our conversation.
Charlie nodded slowly. “It was before a measles vaccine had been developed. I was bedridden for weeks and nearly died. I eventually pulled through, but lost my hearing in one ear and always sat in the front row at club meetings because I couldn’t hear otherwise. I especially have difficulty when there’s background noise.”
“I always thought you sat in front because you were interested in the club programs and didn’t want to miss anything.”
He smiled. “That, too” he replied, “but the hearing in my good ear has worsened as I’ve gotten older, especially for sounds in the high-frequency range.”
“That happens with everyone. What does that have to do with you giving up contesting?”
Charlie frowned. “Something happened during the 160 meter contest last weekend that really bothered me.”
“I found a clear frequency and asked if it was in use. Nobody replied, so I called CQ and soon began working stations. I spent the next 2 hours operating on that same frequency.”
“At about 3 AM, a weak signal popped out of the noise. The guy was slightly above my frequency, but we exchanged information and then I immediately called CQ again.”
I shuffled in my seat. “I still don’t understand the problem.”
Charlie rubbed his face and gazed into the distance. “The next morning I found an e-mail in my inbox from that weak station. The operator called me a jerk, a lid and several other names for calling CQ on his frequency. I looked up the guy in an online call book and it showed his photo. He’s a fairly young fellow, but a big-gun DXer with expensive modern equipment and incredible antennas.”
Charlie’s face had turned red and I thought he might be on the verge of a heart attack. “Easy, Old Man,” I said.
He nodded and took a deep breath. “I considered explaining to the guy that propagation had probably changed and caused interference when none had existed before, or maybe he could still hear me when I couldn’t hear him because his station was so superior to mine, but I didn’t do that.”
“What did you do?”
“I sent him an e-mail and apologized for being a jerk and a lid.”
“Oh, I wish you hadn’t done that.”
“Why not? I don’t want to ruin another ham’s fun and I don’t want to get more nasty e-mails like that one in the future. I’m probably just too old for contesting, especially with my bad hearing and modest station. I’m sure going to miss it, though. Maybe I should just quit ham radio completely.”
“Charlie, don’t do that! Lots of older hams have poor hearing and you know that people with average equipment can’t match the capabilities of those big-gun stations. Now, just imagine the impact that getting an e-mail like the one you received could have on a newcomer to ham radio, perhaps a young and inexperienced fellow trying contesting for the first time.”
“I hadn’t considered that. All I could think about was how much that e-mail had ruined my day.”
“And besides, that other guy doesn’t own the frequency. He could have moved if he was experiencing interference. If there was a jerk on the frequency, it wasn’t you.”
Charlie brightened a bit. “Hmmm.”
“And another thing — were you operating from your cabin in Wyoming during the contest?”
“No, I decided to stay at home this weekend and operate from here in Salt Lake City.”
“Charlie, you’re often the only Wyoming station I work during some contests and I know you provide that multiplier to many other people. You would sure be missed if you gave up contesting.”
He rubbed a hand slowly along his chin. “Well, I’ll consider that before making a final decision about quitting the hobby.”
“Please do and I sure hope you decide to remain active.”
During my drive home later that night I tried to imagine why any ham would want to ruin the enjoyment of Amateur Radio by anyone else. The ego, selfishness or anger issues that I mulled over as the possible answer reflected so poorly on the other operator that I finally gave up and concluded that his behavior was simply beyond my comprehension. Ham radio is a hobby that should be fun for all participants regardless of their equipment or skill level. If those unwilling to play nicely with others succeed in driving people away, the eventual result will be a few big-gun stations that quickly work each other and then spend the rest of the contest weekend calling CQ endlessly without being answered because the operators who might have replied have quit the hobby.
Gene J. Bartsch, WI7N, an ARRL member, was first licensed in January 1964 and upgraded to Extra class license in 1969. His previous call signs were WN5IZR, WA5IZR and WB6OBS. He holds BSEE and MSEE degrees and worked as an engineer at Texas Instruments and Control Data Corporation, and as an engineering manager at NCR, Intel and IBM. His interests include contesting and DXing. He has achieved 5BWAS, 5BDXCC and the DXCC Honor Roll. He can be reached at 41740 NW Elderberry Ln, Banks, OR 97106, email@example.com.