By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – Waves of information shoot from here to there and just about everywhere.
“Some people bounce signals off the moon,” said Jim Miller, a 68-year-old Saltillo resident. “The International Space Station has an amateur radio and people can talk to them up there.”
Miller is a member of the Tupelo Amateur Radio Club. Also known as “hams,” the members make radio contact around Lee County and around the world.
“Ham radio is basically a way to talk to people all over the world who have the same hobby as you do,” said Barry Brand, 73, of Tupelo. “You talk about the kinds of equipment you use, the kind of antenna you have. Just general conversation.”
The hobby also has a serious side. In these days of constant communication by cellphones and other devices, amateur radio is a fallback and a fail-safe.
“They use the radio on the International Space Station as an emergency backup for their communication,” Miller said.
In the event of a tornado, earthquake or other cataclysm, amateur radio operators plan to be ready to keep the flow of information going from person to person and place to place.
The club has a Field Day each year to make sure their radios will be ready when needed.
“That’s good practice for us,” said John Byzet, 66, of Tupelo. “We string up antennas, put out a couple of tables with radios and talk.”
A ham is a ham
It’ll be a scary day if hams ever become the only means of communication.
But let’s get away from apocalyptic visions and back to the fun, because that’s the heart of ham radio.
The name, itself, has an irreverent quality and at least two different meanings.
“Nobody knows for sure,” Miller said. “I’ve heard there was someone on the radio hamming it up, so that’s where it came from.”
Byzet said the name came from people using Morse Code, also known as CW.
“The amateurs were ham-fisted with CW,” he said, “so they were called hams.”
In addition to Morse Code, hams connect to each other with voice and teletype.
“You can use TV on some bands,” Miller said. “It’s a perfect picture.”
On and off, Brand’s been at it for nearly 60 years. Byzet’s passion goes back more than 50.
“I can remember when you couldn’t talk to Russia and you couldn’t talk to Cuba,” Byzet said. “Now, you can talk to anyone.”
There are more than 330 countries and territories with unique designations that hams can contact. To connect with 100 earns an operator a DXCC designation, which is ham code for Distance Century Club.
“I have 275,” Byzet said. “If I would ever get 300, I’d be happy.”
When contact is made, operators exchange QSL cards, which are personalized postcards with the operator’s call sign.
“You send one to them. They send one to you,” said Dan Hales, 78, of Tupelo. “You acknowledge each other.”
Hales keeps his cards in a book, and a couple in his collection are on the racy side. That’s meant to entice other operators to make contact.
But not everyone has to resort to gimmicks. If a ham operator started broadcasting from North Korea, he would find no shortage of friends because contact with the country is such a rare thing.
“There would be a pileup if they ever did,” Miller said.
“If they went on the air, we’d all jump on them,” Byzet said.
Other QSL cards have special value because they’re not available anymore.
“I’ve got Yugoslavia, which no longer exists,” Miller said.
“I’ve got them from the U.S.S.R.,” Brand said.
For people in far-flung places, cards from the U.S. are coveted. Each ham has a unique call sign that’s assigned based on where a person lives. At one time, people had to change calls when they moved, but that restriction has been relaxed.
“Nobody wants to get rid of their original call,” said Chuck Moffatt, 61, of Tupelo.
On the worldwide airwaves, Hales is known as KG4MDT, and that can get people excited on the other end of the connection.
“They ask if I’m at Guantanamo,” said Hales, who got his license when he was living on a sailboat in the Bahamas. “I’m KG4. That’s the area designation in the Bahamas, which happens to be the same as Guantanamo. They ask me if I’m there all the time.”
People don’t have to become hams to experience the radio world. Police scanners can pick up amateur frequencies.
“A lot of people use them to listen about the weather,” Miller said. “We have spotters who will report during storms.”
It costs about $50 to actually join the conversation. That includes the price of a special walkie-talkie radio and the $10 fee for the test to get a technician’s license.
Club members will give the test at 2 p.m. Nov. 9 at their headquarters, the old airport terminal building on Lemon Street in Tupelo. The test covers electronics, regulations and operating procedures. Learn more at www.tupeloarc.org.
“There are three levels of tests for three licenses,” Moffatt said.
A technician’s license will open up about 10 percent of the amateur radio band. The next step up is general class, which makes about two-thirds available. The final step is amateur extra.
“The higher the grade, the more privileges you have,” Miller said. “You can talk on different frequencies that other classes can’t.”
“It encourages us to learn more,” Byzet said.
Happy to share
The club meets at 6 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month at the old terminal building.
A former airport tower, which came from Mud Island in the 1940s, stands in front of the building
Every so often, club members have to climb the tower to install new antennas. It’s not a coveted job.
“I’ve done it twice,” said Chuck Young, 75, club president. “If you do it twice, that’s enough.”
During their meetings, the hams eat and then have programs that cover amateur radio or electronics in general.
“One time, someone came and brought a computer that was in parts and they put it together right in front of us,” Miller said. “When it was done, it worked and everything.”
Hales said the group can seem like an old men’s club, but younger generations are taking up the hobby. Experienced hams are happy to share what they know, and club members regularly do merit badge training for Boy Scouts.
Any increase in the number of hams might help keep information flowing from here to there and everywhere if the unthinkable happens on some terrible day.
And if all turns out well, the more the merrier.
“It’s just fun, really,” Miller said. “That’s why we do it.”