For the past few years, members of the Tuscaloosa amateur radio club have met here every Saturday in the back corner of the only one Chick-fil-a at this depth Alabama River city. They meet to discuss politics, family, and sports, but mostly they meet to discuss over the radio – the paddles, the repeaters, the boat anchors, the birds, and the brass rammers.
Radio is her hobby, her love. They stop in front of the fast food restaurant in trucks with antennas of all kinds sticking out of the cabins like the quills of a metal porcupine and gather in the parking lot to compare equipment before leaving. In the two hours in between, they joke everywhere in the highly specialized slang of ham.
Amateur radio – the non-commercial use of certain radio bands – should of course long be dead. It should have been replaced by the rise of the internet or Facebook. It should have been killed by TwitterThis also allows users to communicate instantly over long distances. But in cities across the country, hundreds of groups, like the Tuscaloosa Amateur Radio Club, have settled down as soldiers, settled in basement offices, and broadcast audio messages on the airwaves. They have been busy recruiting new members and sharing their love of pastime through community events and newsletters. Far from being obsolete by the web, Hams used it to create thousands of online message boards and specialty pages.
“You could compare the radio to fishing – you throw your line into the waves of the air and you never know what you’re getting,” he says Richard Moseson, the editor of the amateur radio magazine CQ. “One of the great things about amateur radio compared to Twitter is the challenge – that amazing sense of achievement when you’re successful. We bounce signals off the moon. We bounce signals off our own satellite fleet. We bounce signals through ionized air. Which other.” Hobby has it all? “
Prior to the email, an Alabama ham could sit in his darkened living room and chat with a like-minded employee France. In front Google earth – the interactive 3-D atlas – hams communicated with space stations, satellites and a group of explorers in Antarctic. Amateur radio makes the world small.
“I’m a vintage car by today’s standards, and when I first got there in the 1970s there were a lot of vintage cars,” he says David Drummond, an experienced driver who leans over the bench at the Chick-fil-A. “Through older ham” – “Elmers” in Ham Patois – “we learned how to speak, put a radio on the air and how to behave when you are there. You have learned the fascination of being able to talk to strangers and new friends with a little nothing. That was the magic of the radio. We pass that on. “
Today, the Tuscaloosa amateur radio club includes older hams like Mr. Drummond as well as his friend Tommy Howellas well as several men in their twenties drawn to the range and freedom of amateur radio. (Drummond says women make great hams, but the club doesn’t have one on their list right now.) “At first I thought it was like talking on a cell phone,” says Todd Kirby, one of the newest members. “Of course not. You step into a repeater and suddenly so many people can hear you and you realize that this is a completely different way of communicating.”
Justin Perry, another young ham, confessed that he didn’t think he was “just there to talk. But I’ve been on my radio all day; I just turned it on. Some of these people are on AlaskaYou are lengthy. When I have the time, I just sit and talk to them. Talk for hours. “
Ham to the rescue
Ham culture isn’t just about chatter. It is also about public service. Even in 2011, in the age of Twitter and HDTV, thousands of seasoned hams across the country are forming a kind of shadow communications network that can prove extremely useful when traditional channels go dark. For example, on the afternoon of April 27, a particularly violent tornado came through TuscaloosaHundreds of houses were leveled and at least 45 people died before racing to the northeast Birmingham.
Local police lost their communications tower, cell phone towers were overloaded and landlines in many parts of the Tuscaloosa metropolitan area were cut. “We were out there providing basic levels of communication,” Howell recalls. “In the beginning there weren’t a lot of means of doing that. The cell phones were down for days.” Some members of the club went into the field to direct traffic or to help “the walking wounded,” Howell says. Some served as weather monitors and regularly logged reports on the progress of the tornado. In the meantime, others passed information from the field to the local office of the United States National Coordination Unit for Disaster Relief.
“The typical first responder won’t understand how a radio works until it doesn’t work because it’s not their job,” says Moseson, the editor of CQ. “But we understand that as ham. We are used to putting taping systems back together. Autonomy and independence are part of our world. It has always been like that.”
Also has equipment. Thousands of dollars in equipment: the swaying piles of transceivers, receivers, and rotators that every ham worth its salt picks up, scrapes, and cobbles together again. On a hot afternoon last month, Drummond and Howell stand in Drummond’s backyard in the suburbs of Northport, Ala., Gazing out at one of the jewels in Drummond’s collection – a towering metal antenna that towers over the nearby homes. Drummond runs a hand through his silver hair and points to the cables holding the thing up.
“And you can get bigger ones,” he chuckles.
“For a lot of money,” says Howell.
“Well, this one wasn’t cheap,” says Drummond.
One guest wonders aloud if Drummond ever thinks about how much money he put into his ham equipment. “I think about it all the time. But I think you’re really asking if I would do it all over again,” he says. “And the answer is yes. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Back inside, Drummond’s immaculately clean study, which he converted into his home station, is full of trophies and memorabilia. The desk is filled with two-way radios, from expensive Yaesu transceivers to vintage radios. Drummond turns a dial and Dutch fills out the study, followed by rapid-fire Spanish. He calls up the countries as the dial turns – the Netherlands, Spain, France. Then a local voice filters through with the famous southern train. The man and Drummond exchange greetings.
“It feels like an accomplishment doesn’t it?” Drummond asks and turns to Howell. “So much more than picking up a phone.”
Drummond searches his desk and makes a stack of cardboard rectangles marked with old-fashioned stamps and ribbons of elegant cursive. These are hams called QSL cards and in the past, operators would exchange QSLs to confirm contact between two stations. The cards in Drummond’s hand – some dating from the 1930s – contrast nicely with the state-of-the-art equipment that crowds his station.
“You know,” says Drummond, pointing to the callsigns on one of the QSLs. “You start digging back a little and you think about all the places Ham has traveled before because they have definitely traveled – every time.” When you’re on the radio, take a trip around the world. And you think, “Gosh, what a wonderful brotherhood I belong.” “”