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The Amateur Amateur: Give Me That Old Ham Religion


By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
ARRL Contributing Editor

I was sitting in my shack, fuming over my latest failure. I was a computer professional for more than 40 years and I still couldn’t penetrate digital modes. Or understand the menus on modern transceivers. Or figure out why the heck my newest radio beeped at random times. I guess it’s because I’m an old fossil who never owned an X-this or i-that.

I know how I got onto the digital track, but I kind of yearned for a different direction. Way back when, when I was studying for my first license, I anticipated that I would spend a lot of time talking to foreign countries. I’d be proficient in Morse code. I would be able to open up my radio, peer inside and know what was what.

Never happened.

Now I was getting the urge to go back and try all the stuff I missed. Relearn the basics. Get down to the nitty-gritty. Yeah...

Give me that old ham religion
I want that original vision
I’m tired of that digital indecision
Fed up with perpetual revision
Yeah, give me that old ham religion.

I bought the ARRL book Basic Radio -- again, as it turned out. I guess I’d gotten confused or sidetracked, because there was a dusty, unread copy already sitting in my bookshelf.

I downloaded software to reacquaint myself with Morse code.

And since I suspected that my little-used HF rig wasn’t performing properly, I picked up a newer model on eBay.

Just address me as “old man”
As often as you can
Gonna put my signal in the sky
The sparks are going to fly
Give me that old ham religion.

Okay, the book didn’t help that much. I could only get so far and then I’d have a question. I could ask, but the book never answered. What I really needed was a class.

Yikes. All of those nifty Morse code training programs that I used years ago didn’t work under the newer versions of Windows. Still, I did find one that functioned. I remembered most of the code, but never developed a solid feel for numbers, punctuation marks or prosigns. I focused on those.

Hmmmmm, the newer HF transceiver I bought, a Yaesu FT-897D, was a lot less intuitive than my older FT-847. By that, I mean there were fewer buttons and knobs. Practically everything was menu-driven. Wasn’t I looking for simpler, rather than more complex? I guess I should’ve carefully read... what? Which brochure says “This will be harder to operate than your last one”?

I want to be an old-time ham
Just ignore e-mail and spam
I want to have cans on my ears
While ragchewing with my peers
Give me that old ham religion.

The basics of radio led me into the basics of electronics, another area in which I was weak. I could always grasp Chapter One. After that, the pool always got a lot deeper and I’d start to flounder. They never taught me this stuff in shop class. We made bookends and dust shovels instead.

The Morse code retraining was going okay, but I dreaded two things: Actually transmitting, and trying to learn all the abbreviations they used on the air.

I figured out the fundamentals of my FT-897D. What helped a lot was the CAT, or Computer Aided Transceiver, feature. I bought a cable to connect the rig to my laptop, then downloaded and installed a software package called Ham Radio Deluxe. At the very least, it helped show me what properties the transceiver had. It was easier to change the radio’s settings through the laptop than it was to fiddle with its tiny display and menu system.

But wait... was I drifting back into dark digital dominion again? Was it even possible to escape?

I want to put wires in my trees
Just waving in the breeze
Got my ladder-line all right
Gonna transmit through the night
Give me that old ham religion.

I do understand Ohm’s Law. And believe it or not, I grasp the concept of an LC tank circuit. But I think my brain is coated with a layer of molasses or something. I’m smart enough; it just takes a long time for new concepts to seep in. Slow neurons, perhaps? Low baud rate synapses?

In any case, I haven’t yet found my ideal format for learning electronics. Maybe my mind has high resistance. It definitely feels like it’s overheating when I try to read technical stuff.

Despite the less-than-friendly layout, I decided that my FT-897D did, at least, receive better than my FT-847 did. It definitely picked up more signals on HF. Along with a lot more static.

That led me to revisit something I had ignored for a long time, my less-than-optimal HF antenna system. Oh boy, antennas. Yet another tricky endeavor.

Gonna use that propagation
To reach almost every nation
I’ll put my call sign on the air
They’re going to hear me everywhere
Oh yeah, give me that old ham religion.

All right, I think I understand now. Getting back to basics doesn’t mean making things simpler. If anything, the basics are more challenging, more difficult to master. The allure of HF, CW, tinkering with electronics and all that is still there, but considering that I’m such a slow learner, should I even try?

No choice, really. For me, it’s all about learning. I may never get there, but I absolutely have to try.

Give me that old ham religion. Oh yeah...

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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