Can you hear me now?
Al Wonderlich operates his GOTA (get on the air) transmitter while Pete Kelleher looks on during the West River Radio Club’s Field Day on June 25 in Townshend.

Can you hear me now?

Field Day connects West River Radio Club with ham radio enthusiasts worldwide

TOWNSHEND — During the weekend of June 25 and 26, a group of amateur - or “ham” - radio enthusiasts gathered on a hillside for Windham County's participation in the international Amateur Radio Relay League's (ARRL) Field Day.

The location may not have been the highest in the county, but at about 1,530 feet elevation, the field outside the house on Simpson Brook Road offered beautiful views and far-flung connections with other ham radio operators.

Nearly all attendees were members of the West River Radio Club (WRRC), a group of amateur radio operators that serves Windham County and the surrounding areas.

During Field Day, operators across the globe connect with one another on “any and all amateur bands,” except for the 60-, 30-, 17-, and 12-meter bands, according to the ARRL's website. While many radio connections are made on the fly when both operators happen to be broadcasting at the same moment, Field Day is a time when hams know they will find many others on the air.

Ready for anything

The other purpose of Field Day is to demonstrate amateur radio's emergency-communications abilities.

As WRRC President Timothy Bell (call sign “KA1ZQX") noted, all of the radio equipment used at the Townshend site was off the grid, powered only by generators or solar. Members of WRRC and ARRL say that during emergencies, such as Tropical Storm Irene and the 9/11 attacks, when devices such as telephones and cellphones are offline because of power or connection issues, ham radio operators have stepped up to help with communications.

The ARRL's Field Day website states very clearly that no awards are given for the number of operators reached or the furthest distance spanned, but many attendees expressed how much fun it was to link with other hams and see how many connections they could make.

Al Wonderlich (call sign “WR1VT"), who was operating the GOTA ("Get On The Air” radio), said he heard from eastern Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Michigan, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and northern New Jersey, and that was only a few hours after Field Day began.

Wonderlich is one of the WRRC's newest members, and he recently earned his FCC amateur radio broadcast license. But, “I did ham radio in the 1980s,” he said, when he was in the Navy. “It wasn't like this!”

'Not your uncle's hobby anymore'

Pete Kelleher (call sign “KC1SS") agreed with Wonderlich, noting that “with the changes in technology, we can do more than what the image of amateur radio” suggests.

“This is not your uncle's hobby anymore,” Kelleher said.

Next to Wonderlich, Ken Morse (call sign “N1WGU") was working on a radio “your uncle” probably never dreamed of: the digital station.

Protected from the sun under a tent, Morse was operating two laptop computers and a radio, the latter tuned to the 20-meters band, which Morse said is the digital portion of the radio band.

“I'm new to digital,” Morse said. “It's kind of neat because you can get on... the micro-stations in the frequency.” Morse connected to hams through a computer interface by clicking on the on-screen “waterfall,” which shows which hams are on which frequencies. It allows for more precision in tuning in.

“I talked to a person in the Ukraine,” Morse said.

At home, Morse uses “an old tube radio,” and “I talk to people all over the world."

Some of them are old friends.

Morse told the story of a friend who moved to New Jersey about 20 years ago. The two hadn't spoken since he left. “One night I heard his voice on the call and said, 'Rick, is that you?' It was like he was in my living room!” Morse said. “It was neat to talk to New Jersey and have it sound crystal clear."

Morse noted the WRRC's Field Day location was at a member's house, but that member wasn't there. “He's on a trip [in the Midwest], but he's going to try to go to Field Day there and connect with his house,” he said.

Spreading the word

On the west side of the house's porch, George Becht (call sign “N2SQ") was stationed behind his radio - tuned to the 6-meter band - which was connected to an antenna he made himself.

“Today I talked to Connecticut, western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York,” Becht said.

Becht has taught amateur radio to high schoolers for the last seven years. He said one of the perks for young hams is the opportunity for college scholarships of $1,000 or more given by amateur radio associations. “Some of the scholarships are only for girls,” Becht noted.

Amateur radio provided Becht a crucial link when he was a younger man.

As a soldier serving in Vietnam, he connected with MARS, the Military Affiliate Radio Service. Becht said hams in Vietnam would link servicepeople to hams in the U.S., who would then connect the soldiers to friends and family via the telephone.

“I talked to my mom,” Becht said.

Upon coming home in 1973, Becht got his broadcast license and has been connected to the world ever since.

“From my car once I talked to someone in Russia,” Becht said, noting he “speaks to a fellow in Thailand on a regular basis, Harry in Bogota every morning,” and other friends in Panama, Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. “You make friends around the world. You may never meet, but they're your friends,” Becht said.

A universal language

On the other side of the porch sat the man the others referred to as “Mister Amateur Radio,” Darrel Daley (call sign “K1KU").

He was operating the CW, or Morse code, radio. Whereas a knowledge of Morse code was once required for an FCC amateur radio license, it no longer is part of the regular training. But Daley said he prefers it.

“When you're working DX - distance - you're working long distance,” he stressed. “You get accents. In Morse code, there's no accents,” Daley said, adding, “it's a universal language."

Daley is charter member of the WRRC, and said he has been to Field Day “probably every year since 1990."

“I've been a ham since I was 43 - I got my first license in 1978,” Daley said. When he was employed as a junior- and senior-high school band director in Shugiak, Alaska, he overheard two math instructors talking in the teachers' lounge. “They said, 'Hey! I talked to a guy in France and Germany,' and I thought, 'Hey, this would be neat!'” Daley said.

The teachers' mode of communication: ham radio.

Every night but Sunday, Daley meets up on the radio with “the net,” a group of people who tune in and chat over a specific frequency.

“They're from all over New England, sometimes from the south, sometimes Canada,” he said, pointing out that some operators in his net are from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York.

A few times, Daley has had the good fortune of meeting another ham in person.

“We call that 'having an eyeball,'” he said, as he handed a visitor his “eyeball card” which listed his name, call sign, other contact information, and a special introduction: “Putney, Vermont's premier prince of perspicacity, polymath, perambulating pontificator, prognosticator, and prescient pundit."

Custom-made connections

Up the hill from the porch, Kelleher had what he said hams call a “homebrew.” “It's a homemade antenna and station I made using stuff from the hardware store,” Kelleher said, pointing out the entire set-up was in his tent, and was battery-powered.

Licensed since 1987, Kelleher said he got involved in amateur broadcasting when he was a kid. Two uncles were into it, but now, “I'm the only sub-generation in my family to be in ham radio."

Although Kelleher lives in Cavendish, after getting invited to one of the WRRC's events last year, “I had so much fun, I joined this group,” he said, noting, “this is the most fun I've had doing amateur radio."

In his “homebrew” set-up, “I only have 2.5 watts of power,” he said, noting a typical set-up is 100 watts. “I had only 2.5 percent of what's normal, and last night a guy heard me perfectly in Brazil!” Kelleher said.

In other years' Field Days, the operators may have reached more hams, and those further afield. Bell said the atmospheric conditions were “not good” that day, and that sunspots and meteor showers all affect the connections. The broadcast signal was hitting the F-layer of the ionosphere and bouncing off into space because it can't overcome the earth's curvature, Becht explained.

Morse said he had more luck communicating with domestic hams, “but the international signal is getting absorbed” by the atmospheric activity. “We're at the bottom end of the sunspot cycle,” he said.

But the opportunities for connection might increase as the sun goes down.

Morse explained the difference between night and day is, well, just that.

“Different frequencies respond differently” depending on whether the radio is in daylight or darkness, he said.

Although the expressed goal of Field Day was to demonstrate ham radios' capabilities and track the number and location of connections made, nearly every attendee enthusiastically mentioned camaraderie as the draw of the event.

“We have a good time, we don't take it too seriously,” Morse said, explaining, “it's about getting here, getting on the radio, and eating dinner. The food is incredible! Everybody stops when it's time to eat. We sit around and catch up."

Becht said that if it wasn't for Field Day, he might not have so many friends in the area. He spends most of the year at his home in Sarasota, Fla. “I come to Vermont every summer to get away from the Florida heat,” he said. Shortly after arriving last year, he sought out the WRRC so he could participate in Field Day 2015.

“Through amateur radio, I got to meet all these people,” Becht said.

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