At Ham Radio Competition, Learning By Dial And Error

Posted: July 02, 1986

"Where is that idiot from Texas?" Jack Imhof said to no one while turning the dial of his radio transmitter as if he were an expert safecracker waiting for a click.

After a moment the click came, in the form of a thick Southern accent.

"Ah, there he is," Imhof said with a grunt. He grasped the microphone before him, leaned forward and intoned, "This is Kilo, 2, Kilo, Echo, Delta."

"This is 22 Alpha, Northern Florida," the voice answered, correcting Imhof's original assumption. Imhof recorded the name of the respondent and the state on a chart set on the table beside him. When he tried to respond, the voice was gone.

"This guy's not too swift," Imhof quipped, and, with a flick of his wrist, resumed his search for another voice.

Banter over the airwaves took place for 36 hours last weekend during the Burlington County Radio Club's annual Field Day.

For two days each year, ham radio enthusiasts from about 5,000 clubs across the country disconnect their home equipment and set up shop in a remote area, simulating emergency conditions such as those after a hurricane or another disaster.

About 30 of the Burlington County club's 50 members chose to camp on a few acres on the edge of a cranberry bog in the Indian Mills section of Shamong Township. They housed themselves - and their equipment - in tents, trailers and under the stars. They used a single generator for power. They hung makeshift antennas from tall trees and prayed that they would transmit farther than 15 miles.

The five transmitters that hummed, buzzed and cracked amid the trees and the mosquitoes were as varied as those who operated them.

While some members relaxed in lawn chairs, telling war stories and jokes over cans of cold beer and between bites of sandwiches, others sat before their transmitters, furiously logging the owners and locations of the disembodied voices that came across the airwaves - for despite the Field Day's opportunity to get away from the usual weekend worries, a competition was taking place.

For each contact made over the radio, members received one point. For each made using Morse Code, members received two points. At the end of the Field Day, the list of contacts is sent to the Amateur Radio Relay League, in Newton, Conn. The league verifies the contacts and publishes a listing of each club's achievement.

Imhof, a Westampton resident who has been a member of the club for 26 years, conceded that it usually ends up closer to the bottom of the list than to the top. But he added that he was confident of change, and that he was doing his best to see that it occurred.

"I think the accents are rich as you move around the country," he said, seated before his transmitter in a bright yellow tent. "You hear a young lad, you hear an old one. . . . They come in from all over the place."

Across the way, in another tent, the patter of International Morse Code came from a transmitter operated by Thomas DeMeis. DeMeis, a resident of Delran, worked as a telegraph and radio operator on a passenger ship before retiring a few years ago.

The transmitter's continuous radio wave is broken when the message is entered on a key. DeMeis, wearing headphones and a scowl of preoccupation, operated the key almost without thinking. With uncanny speed, he dashed off the same information that Imhof had picked up over the radio.

"If you can type and dance, you can learn Morse Code," said Bob Spratlin of Mount Holly, a 10-year member of the club who taught himself the code 15 years ago. "It's easier if you can pick up a rhythm."

For the past 30 years, club members have used the call letters K2KED, usually for Kilo, 2, Kilo, Echo, Delta.

However, some members, such as Marvin Mayberry of Tabernacle, recite them as King, 2, King Edward, David.

Each call is followed by the number of transmitters being used at the site. In this case, five transmitters were being used and the calls were coming from Southern New Jersey. So, a typical call would be "Kilo, 2, Kilo, Echo, Delta. 5A, Southern New Jersey."

It sounded easy to Matt Cummings of Delran - until he got behind a microphone.

Cummings, 15, is studying for his ham radio operator's license and came to the Field Day with his father, Barry, a member of the club.

Matt, a sophomore at Delran High School, had his feet wrapped tightly under his chair, and the heels of his red, black and white sneakers tapped out their own message as he spoke to the outer reaches for the first time.

He didn't do badly, making several contacts in his first half-hour.

"It's exciting," he said. "I've never done this before, but I'm working on it. I was kind of always a little bit interested" in ham radio.

He said at first that he was a little bit scared, but he gained confidence with each contact.

"I got somebody from Colombia, South America," he said. "I was just listening to what they were saying. You meets lot of people doing this." After a pause, he added, "Even though you never see them."

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