My New Vanilla Hobby

Maybe I’m trying to avoid writing more fiction. Out of the blue, I decided to take up amateur radio; you know, ham radio. I’m not sure why at this point in my life, I want to pick up that old hobby, but I do. I had a novice license when I was fifteen. My parents moved from New York to Chicago that year. I was alone and friendless for summer vacation. My dad bought me a small transceiver, and I used it to chat with people all over the Midwest.

That fall, after I returned to school, my father died, and my life changed forever. My mom moved back to New York and my ham radio hobby was forgotten. Memories of that summer came back to me a few days ago. I remembered how proud my dad was that I passed the Novice exam and was on the air chatting. I hated having him in the room with me while I talked. Hey, I was a teenager. My radio transmissions leaked into our stereo, and my dad would sit in the den listening to my side of the conversations.

After he died, I regretted locking him out of my evenings on the air that summer. They would have been the last real quality time we would have spent together. I don’t remember much about contacts I made on the air or what I discussed. I clearly remember finding out that my dad sat in the den listening to me talk on the radio. I still get a twinge when I picture him.

Before cell phones and the Internet, ham radio was a gateway to a world of discovery.  Now, it’s pretty much irrelevant. Everybody has a sophisticated two-way radio in his pocket. The Internet and social media make it trivial for me to talk to people all over the world. This blog lets me broadcast in over fifteen languages. Talking on the radio is something we all do more than once a day.

Even so, there are about 750 thousand licensed ham radio operators in the US. You have to pass a technical test to get a license. When I was a kid, it was exciting to talk to someone hundreds or even thousands of miles away. We would exchange postcards with our call signs on them. From what I’ve been reading, hams still do that. I don’t want to collect postcards.

In the old days, about the only way you could have a two-way radio in your car was to be a cop or a ham. We have so many now; laws had to be passed to keep people off the air while driving. I would be afraid to add a mobile ham radio to our plug-in hybrid. It would most likely interfere with the complex computers built into the car.

Why would I want to resurrect this largely-antique hobby? When the notion to study for the license tests occurred to me, I wasn’t sure. After I started learning the techy stuff, I remembered that summer in Chicago. Maybe this is a way of closing the emotional loop left open by my dad’s death. I’m sure that’s part of the reason I decided to pick this hobby up again after all these years.

There’s another reason, a much more important one. There is a slender thread that binds us together. Each technological advance has increased our dependence on systems we don’t control. Most people don’t have landline telephones. If the cell system is out, so is communication. Cell service is likely to fail in a natural disaster or war. What if Mrs. Lion and I are in different places, and there is an earthquake? We would be separated with no way to find one another. Our cell phones will be worthless.

The only reliable hope is a decentralized communication system. That’s right, ham radios. If we had portable ham radios, we would almost certainly be able to contact someone outside of the disaster area. As in every other natural disaster, amateur radio operators are always willing and able to provide help. If we were both licensed operators and had our radios, the vast network of other ham radio operators who were safe could help us find one another.

In a less drastic scenario, having these radios would make it more likely we could reach help if we needed it and we were in the mountains, outside of cell phone range. We have a small supply of drinking water and non-perishable food bars in our car, along with those foil emergency blankets. We have them in case we get stranded. It happens in this part of the world more than you would think. Adding another way to communicate adds another layer of protection. Mrs. Lion isn’t excited about studying for and getting a technical license. I hope she’ll do it. It only takes about eight hours to learn the needed stuff. The test can be taken at home. I’m scheduled for mine on Friday.

Citizen band radios were supposed to fill this need. Cell phone technology pretty much killed that for everyone but long-haul truckers. The thing about ham radio, and from the old days, citizen band, is that lets people connect easily and instantly. Information can be exchanged without fuss or muss.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my license if I pass the test. I figured that we could get a pair of walkie-talkies for emergency use. Beyond that, there are all sorts of interesting possibilities that appeal to my geeky side. In the meantime, I like acquiring new knowledge. Also, my spidey sense is tingling about the need for a reliable form of communication that doesn’t depend on the local infrastructure. I’m not predicting an earthquake or volcanic eruption, but I know enough to trust my instinct.