Tuesday, May 21, 2013

kindred signals

every once and again i get nostalgic, and usually it's a zeitgeist that sets in and won't let go. it's a good one. about 20 yrs ago, during college, i got my ham radio license. as an engineer and lifetime signal junkie the technical aspects are a natural draw, but i also thought it would provide a way to be social for once.

first rig was a military surplus deal that, well, was more of a toy than an means to an end. it could pick up nearby cordless phones, the highway patrol dispatch, state prison guard HQ and once a couple of kids running around with walkie talkies. only contact was with a historic aircraft, fittingly.

but the summer after getting my license i broke down and got a handie-talkie that covers the much more popular "two-meter" (VHF) band, and before long i had an antenna up and made my first contact.

it didn't take long to figure out who's who. most of the regulars are friendly, some a bit overbearing but all well-meaning. as in real life the best conversations are off the beaten path, such as the older dudes in the next county that let me join in, or the whiz kid up north who has the top class license already.

still, the introvert in me can spend hours just listening. radio has a magic like nothing else, and sooner or later other towns drift in, especially in the warmer months, and distant civilizations are as close as the desk. and even though all the regional hubs had busy repeaters, none seemed to glow in the night like detroit.

easily the biggest metro within "drift" range, the scene was always alive, something i got to confirm about 10 yrs later when i lived up that way. one machine in particular would bleed into one of my scan channels for a nearby repeater, and more often than not i'd listen. besides, with only five watts back then i had little choice.

some nights the 147.140 frequency sounded like a professional call in show. one an off-duty police officer was fielding questions and had to push back one about a particular case that wasn't appropriate for amateur radio. then later on this gal with a smooth, heavenly voice had an "insomniacs net", and i was intrigued when she mentioned she has grandkids.

eventually i upgraded my license and explored a lower frequency band that, like CB, skips about the hemisphere every 500 miles or so when it wants to. there was still a morse code test back then and so for the first year the mic stayed in a drawer. eventually i made a few contacts and still have the cards, but again, it can be fun to just listen, especially on those nights when the band stays awake longer than i do.

so now i have full privileges and a decent radio setup, have talked to several continents over the years...

so why the nostalgia? got to thinking how in the college years we strive for something bigger than what we have and we don't know what we don't know. and for a radio geek, well, studying sometimes has to wait.

it's blissful quixotism.

and maybe...as it's often tempting to take life too seriously, i need some of that now more than ever.