After reading that marvelous best-seller, The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden, I seriously considered omitting this chapter in its entirety, or at least relegating it to some lower rung on the totem pole. There is an inescapable law when it comes to innovation. Like most of the principles radio amateurs live under, this law involves some arithmetic. I hate to use math so early in the book, but we might as well get used to it, since ham radio is a mathematical hobby, among other things. Here it is:
The effective radio amateur must always tread a narrow path between the cautious world of Adrian Monk and the latest conferee of the Darwin Awards. Personally, I have received some of my most profound revelations and creative triumphs immediately after getting knocked on my keister by unintentional electroshock therapy, but not everyone is as receptive to the benefits thereof as those of my ilk are.
So, in deference to our more tepid and timid practitioners, I am somewhat obligated to appraise dear reader of some simple safety principles.
I suppose the quickest way to get this unpleasant task out of the way is to list the various means by which a radio amateur might hurt himself, after which we will describe preventive measures and suggestions. A partial list is as follows:
1) You can electrocute yourself.
2) You can fall out of a tree, off a tower, or off a roof.
3) You can burn yourself with a hot soldering iron.
4) You can burn your house down.
5) You can scald yourself with hot coffee
6) You can choke on small parts.
7) You can poison yourself.
8) You can have a car crash.
9) You can get struck by lightning.
10) You can strangle yourself with a wire.
11) You can drown.
12) You can get shot by a neighbor, wife, and/or other individual who doesn’t share your enthusiasm for the hobby.
Let us now address each of these points in detail. Number one, electrocution, is a good place to start. Amateur Radio is an electrical hobby. Radio amateurs, for the most part (with a few notable exceptions), have bodies which are every bit as subject to the ill effects of electricity as other mortals. Fortunately, the modern ham shack is far safer in this regard than those of yore. Most modern, commercially made radios have nearly inaccessible sources of dangerous electrical currents. With the advent of low-voltage, solid state technology, you almost have to work at getting a lethal jolt.
Contrast this with the typical radio shack of half a century ago, which consisted of a loose collection of extremely high-voltage components lashed together with uninsulated jumper cables, sitting on the edge of a water-soaked desk, all powered by a distribution panel populated entirely with glass “fuses” bypassed with rusty copper pennies, and operated by a pre-teen boy sitting on a steel folding chair donning nothing but damp swimming trunks.
It really is amazing that anyone survived the hobby at all. But here we are. Now, we need to acknowledge that many folks reading this book are not as willing to court disaster as our more intrepid ancestors, so with that in mind, we present some sage advice as to how to avoid one major pitfall of amateur radio. First, some basic principles.
Electric shock results when a human body comes in contact with a source of electric current. The most severe form of electric shock is known as electrocution, which is when death occurs. This is the least desirable form of electric shock for most radio amateurs, and should be avoided whenever possible.
Now, the surest way to avoid electric shock is to have an insulator between your body and the source of electricity. Insulators are things like paper, rubber, glass, cloth, plastics, air, and space. Space is, by far, the most reliable insulator, and the more of it you put between your body and a potential source of electricity, the safer you'll be. One notable exception to this is lightning, which is defined as electricity that doesn't follow the rules. Though there are methods available to avoid intentionally attracting lightning, if, despite all your best efforts, lightning decides it wants you, about all you can do is duck. So, statistically speaking, you'll be a lot safer if you deal with the sort of electricity that DOES follow the rules. (Oddly enough, however, about 90% of all people who DO get struck by lightning actually survive, but there's really no point in going out of your way to verify this).
Now, the opposite of an insulator is a conductor. Conductors are things like copper, aluminum, iron, silver, saltwater, charcoal, and the aforementioned damp swimming trunks. These are all examples of things you DO NOT want between your body and a source of electricity. Oh——and I forgot to mention——solder. There is a special reason I mention this substance. To wit:
Most of us old timers, long before anyone worried about poisoning ourselves with lead, carbon tetrachloride, asbestos, or lard, employed what is known as the "three-point technique" for installing small components on a circuit board or chassis. This "three-point technique" consisted of: a hot soldering iron in the right hand, a pair of needle-nose pliers in the left hand, and a sprig of solder held between the teeth. This was a very effective technique when one needed an extra hand, and nobody I know ever died of lead poisoning doing it. However, this is NOT recommended for working on a live circuit board——that is, one with electricity still applied. Solder is a very good conductor——that is; it is one of the things you do NOT want between your body and a source of electricity. One memorable day, I had forgotten this fact. Suffice it to say nothing wakes you up quite like having 48 volts pass through your mouth, down your esophagus, and out your nether regions. It felt like I was kicked in the head by a Cape Buffalo with PMS. Good thing it was only 48 volts——if it had been 120 volts, it probably would have blown the mandible off my skull.
So the lesson here is——when using the three-point technique, be sure you unplug the device in question. Of course, this may be a moot point, since the professional worrywarts tell us that that holding solder between your teeth causes immediate, lethal poisoning, much like global warming. So it's best to use an alternative to the time-honored three-point technique, although I can't imagine what it might be.
Let's move on to falls, another potential hazard for the active radio amateur.
Amateur radio requires the use of antennas. Back in the olden days, antennas were known as "aerials" for the simple reason that they were usually up in the air. Actually, aerial is a fine word and I really don't know why it fell into such disuse. Antennas are things on bugs' heads, in my thinking. It isn't even that descriptive a term.
Be that as it may, since antennas, or aerials, if you will, are up in the air, one should probably be aware that what goes up may come down. And if, in the process of erecting or maintaining an aerial, you go up along with it, there is the possibility that you may come down, too. Gravity can be most unforgiving in this regard.
Now, fortunately, there are actually several ways of getting an aerial up in the air without you going up with it, and if at all humanly possible, these methods should be explored first.
Radio amateurs have a long history of using trees to support simple wire aerials. In fact, most hams of long standing are fully convinced that a certain number of trees were put on this Earth for the express purpose of supporting wire aerials. In fact, it can be fairly well proven than many more trees are suitable for supporting wire aerials than are suitable for supporting human beings, even though human beings were climbing trees long before the aerial was invented.
The salient point here is this: there is very little chance of falling out of a tree if you avoid climbing it in the first place.
One of the most time-honored methods for getting a wire aerial into a tree without climbing it is the use of a slingshot and sinker, or, alternatively, a bow and arrow. Either one of these devices can be used to launch a length of fishing line over an accommodating branch, which can then be used to hoist the wire aerial. Of course, each of these methods has certain hazards associated with them, as well. It's probably not a great idea to use a hunting arrow, as there is likelihood someone on the other side of the aforementioned tree might be on the receiving end. Even if the receiving party should survive, this action could result in collateral injury as described in method 12 above. So it's probably better to use an arrow with a target tip——or if you're really a wimp, an arrow with one of those rubber-blob thingamajiggers on the tip.
Sooner or later, most hams find that wire aerials in trees leave something to be desired. At this point you will find that you have graduated to aerials supported by things you can fall off of, most commonly roofs and towers. The main difference between roofs and towers is that roofs generally aren't quite as high as towers. What this means is, a fall from a roof is more likely to cause long term, painful, crippling injuries, whereas a fall from the top of a tall tower is more likely to finish you off in a rather painless manner. And a fall from a really, really tall tower is likely to embed you immediately in the Earth, so the trouble and expense of a burial are usually circumvented.
If, after carefully considering your potential fate, you still want to erect an aerial on something you can fall off of, there are simple precautions that can assure a safe return to earth. Always have an experienced ham or professional erect and inspect your tower. Unless you're a structural engineer, you probably aren't qualified to determine if you have a safe tower. It doesn't do you a whole lot of good to have yourself safely secured to a tower, if the tower collapses with you on it.
Never never never never never never never never never never never Never never never never never never never never never never never Never never never never never never never never never never never Never never never never never never never never never never never Never never never never never never never never never never never Never never never never never never never never never never never climb a crank-up tower. Ever. PERIOD. Crank-up towers are guillotines in disguise. You could easily end up beside yourself.
In fact, never insert any body part through a crank up tower.
Always use the proper equipment and common sense when climbing a tower. Well, maybe not common sense——if we had any common sense, we wouldn't be climbing towers in the first place now, would we? But, be sure you have an approved safety harness, a hard hat, solid shoes——and most importantly, someone else with you who knows what they're doing. NEVER climb a tower alone. You're buddy should be able to recognize that something might be amiss as you're dangling upside down by your safety rope sixty feet off the ground.
A good source of safety training for climbing towers and such is your local fire department. They can tell you all about ropes and knots and other equipment I might have overlooked. And while you're at it, you might want to take a course in CPR. As well as your climbing buddy. I used to never pass up an opportunity to practice mouth to mouth on the rubber lady. Except nowadays, they have more realistic CPR dummies——if you take a course now, you'll get to be intimate with a middle-aged, bald, fat rubber guy——a much more likely match to your climbing partner——and YOU.
How about them hot soldering irons (Hazard #3)? Most Amateur Radios are held together with solder. Well, perhaps that needs some elaboration. The parts inside most Amateur radios are connected with solder. Solder is an alloy of lead and tin (though there is a trend these days toward lead-free solder). Solder, as mentioned above, is a good electrical conductor, which makes it particularly useful for sticking electronic components together. Solder melts at a temperature of around 700-800 degrees, depending on the particular alloy. Molten solder can be a hazard, as one might surmise. Not only is it hot, but it tends to roll around a bit. I sport——well, perhaps sport is an inaccurate verb——a small scar on my “procreative utensil” as a reminder never to perform soldering operations at two in the morning whilst clad in pajamas. Many seasoned hams can relate other painful realities——yet it never causes most of us to abandon the hobby altogether. We simply apply more caution——or clothing. For the most part, these injuries are more insulting than life-threatening, but as with all hot objects and substances, due caution is advised. It goes without saying that any instrument capable of creating molten solder in the 800 degree range might itself also be quite warm. And yet, it must be said anyway, because grabbing a hot soldering iron by the business end can be extremely painful and stinky——and done more frequently than one might imagine. Burning human flesh is one of those fragrances best left out of the ham shack.
The best safeguard against this unfortunate event is to use a proper soldering iron “holster,” as inconvenient as that may seem, which makes it all but impossible for all but the most creatively self-destructive individual to burn himself. Haphazardly laying the iron on the bench (we’re all guilty as charged, by the way) is just begging to be burned. When you’re deep in concentration on the circuit at hand, the temptation is to keep your eyes on the work and go into autopilot, working entirely by feel. The iron may be exactly where you placed it thee hundred solder joints before, but the three hundred and first time, you’ll grab it by the muzzle——trust me!
Now, back in the olden days, soldering irons were frightful beasts. They resembled medieval maces as much as anything. They had a huge five-pound blob of copper you heated over your gas stove, which held the heat long enough for you to march across the floor, down the stairs, and across the basement to your work bench. You could probably do about thirty solder connections before they cooled off enough to need reheating, whereupon you’d have to march back across the basement, up the stairs, into the kitchen, and repeat the process all over again. In the olden days, hams got their exercise by marching all over creation with red hot, five-pound soldering irons. You weren’t as likely to die of hardening of the arteries, but you had a better chance of burning your foot off.
So, as you can see, in some ways, ham radio has improved. Well, it’s gotten safer, anyway. Maybe.
Now, this leads us to burning your house down, (Hazard #4). In the early years of the hobby, most hams were considered insane, so they were relegated to the barn, the dog house, or a tool shed in the far corner of the “back forty” with all their demon-infested equipment. Burning the house down was not a real hazard, because they weren’t allowed in the house to start with. It was only after hams achieved a certain level of respectability that they became a real fire hazard. This hazard arose from two sources: red hot, five-pound soldering irons, and overloaded electrical wiring. At one time, house wiring consisted of bare copper wires draped across the wooden rafters, supported by porcelain “insulators.” We use the term insulator lightly, because after an insulator was covered with spider webs, dead bug guts, and soot from the cook stove upon which the five pound soldering iron was heated, they were no longer insulators. They were toaster elements.
Now the one saving grace in all of this was that a typical American house was pretty likely to burn to the ground anyway, with or without a ham being resident therein. What this meant was that hams couldn’t be blamed entirely for everything evil that beset the modern world, and therefore were gradually, eventually, re-admitted, along with all their implements of doom, into their own homes.
The fact of the matter is that normal Americans by the thousands were discovering things called “appliances” which ran off electricity, and that these appliances ran longer if those persnickety things called “fuses” just didn’t keep burning out all the time and ruining their fun. Many of these appliances used just as much electricity as any ham did with all his demon-possessed widgets. Bypassing a fuse with a penny might have started in some unknown ham’s radio shack, but it was popularized by——well——people!
Nowadays, of course, we have things like electric codes, which means that it’s a lot harder to burn your house to the ground by electrical means. In fact, most modern Americans have never even seen a traditional fuse box——or open frame wiring for that matter——which is probably a good thing.
But you can still burn your house to the ground if a hot soldering iron gets out of hand. Or a space heater. Or a toaster oven. Just be aware that not only do hams have to be aware of dangers peculiar to ham radio, but they can damage themselves or their property in “normal” ways, as well.
Let us now investigate Hazard Number Five: scalding your carcass with hot coffee.
Hams drink coffee. Lots of it. It is the potion of life that powers us through contest weekends and late night construction projects. If, as a new ham, you don’t drink coffee yet——you will.
Now, for those readers “across the pond” who still possess a modicum of common sense, the following may come as a shock to your system(s). We Americans need to be told that hot coffee is——well——hot. Our government tells us we should know this ahead of time. We have warnings on microwave ovens that inform us that materials emerging thence might be hot, as well.
Now, although most hams occasionally need to be reminded that it’s probably not a good idea to climb a tower during a lightning storm, most of us do not need to be told that hot coffee might be hot. In fact, some of us more experienced Radio Amateurs actually heat up our coffee for the express purpose of making it hot.
Be that as it may, coffee can be a hazardous substance in several ways. Like wet swimming trunks, coffee is a good conductor of electricity. If you accidentally spill a flagon of it on a high voltage power supply, you are likely to witness considerable hissing and fizzing. If a part of your person happens to be in contact with the aforementioned spilled coffee, you yourself might also do some hissing and fizzing. So, it’s a good idea to always keep your coffee at a lower altitude than any electronic device you’re working on.
In a dimly-lit workshop, it’s easy to mistake rosin soldering flux, (a pasty, dark brown, mildly toxic substance), from Ham Radio coffee (another pasty, dark-brown mildly toxic substance). The best indication that you’ve been dipping your soldering iron into your coffee rather than into the vat of soldering flux is that coffee usually works better for cleaning the slag off the soldering tip.
After several such inadvertent dousings, however, you may find the coffee takes on a curious, tangy character. Although this is likely to be a marked improvement over what you’ve normally been drinking, this can have deleterious health effects, and should be avoided whenever possible. (Note: This is not a suitable method for reheating your coffee, as convenient as it may be. Invest in a good “official” coffee warmer. You’ll be glad you did).
Now, for those of us who are indeed deemed incapable of safely handling hot liquids, there is a relatively newfangled alternative, i.e., cold, canned “energy drinks.” Most of these can be partaken with little chance of scalding yourself. They come with all kinds of Generation X, Y, or Z-sounding names. Rock Star, Kick My Butt, Cordless Bungee Jumper, and the like. Now despite the “balls-to-the-wall” (forgive my Romanian) sounding names of these drinks, the truth is, these are wimpy alternatives to good old fashioned ham radio coffee sludge. Ask any contester. In addition, these drinks lack the multi-tasking capabilities of genuine coffee. (For alternative uses for coffee, see CHAPTER TWELVE, “Setting Up Your Very Own Ham Radio Station in Your Bedroom, Garage, Attic, Basement, or Perambulator”). Our advice is to learn how to safely and properly handle coffee. (For our British friends, most of the references to coffee can be replaced with tea with little modification, except with regards to soldering flux. Tea does not generally thicken with age).
Well, we’re almost halfway there. We now come to Method Six of self-destruction: choking on small parts. This is actually more of a hazard than it was in days of yore, because——well——radios are smaller nowadays.
Actually, the only time I really came close to choking to death on a small part (other than, perhaps, some forgotten experiences in my infancy), was when a transistor (I believe) had fallen, unbeknownst, into my coffee from an overhead shelf. (See how all these safety issues can be related?) I think I actually swallowed the item in question. In any case, it was a most unpleasant, and best unrepeated, experience.
Now, as unlikely as you are to suffer a similar incident, you may (in fact, you should, if you are a ham worthy of the name) occasionally entertain young visitors in your ham shack. Young people, up to the age of around nineteen or so, have a penchant for inserting small foreign objects into their mouths and other orifices not intended for such. Be ever on the alert for this eventuality. Keep easily swallowed parts in appropriate bins until ready for use. In fact, you might even entertain the notion of labeling said bins, so as to more readily find the parts in question. This is a wonderful, innovative idea, though I have yet to encounter any ham who’s actually implemented it.
I suppose there is some aspect of this hazard I’ve forgotten, but we should probably move on.
Let us now elucidate Hazard Seven: poisoning yourself. This is actually a more insidious danger than choking on small parts, because it can occur slowly. Choking to death on a lock washer is more evident and immediate.
The typical ham shack has numerous poisons of varying intensity. We mentioned coffee. We also have soldering fumes, something that has drawn a lot of attention in recent years. It’s probably a good idea to use some ventilation while soldering, although it really spoils the ambience. This is one of those gut-wrenching judgment calls. A good deal of my personality, for better or worse, is a direct result of having inhaled solder fumes for several decades. Far be it from me to deprive any young ham of such an enriching experience. But I suppose, again, I am obligated to point this out. Solder contains lead, and molten solder emits lead in a vapor state, which can be inhaled, thereby causing the sundry deleterious things that lead is supposed to do. Some people are allergic to rosin flux, since it is an organic compound, closely related to some human-type amino acids and such. Burning rosin flux is believed by some to be potentially carcinogenic. We occasionally use corrosive compounds, like circuit-board etching solutions. Use rubber gloves and chemical goggles when etching circuit boards. Dispose of the used chemicals in the proper fashion, which means, don’t flush it down the sink. Save it in a proper plastic bottle, sneak it over to your neighbor’s garage, where, upon its discovery, they can flush it down their sink. No. Just kidding. Scratch that from the record. Forget I ever said that.
Instead, check with your local official bureaucratic entity for proper means of disposing these sorts of things. Every city has a proper, official means for doing this, but it can vary from place to place.
Hams use a lot of alcohol. For cleaning things, that is. Alcohol is flammable, and denatured alcohol is quite toxic. Avoid using it for cleaning your hands and such.
If you’re into homebrewing, (ham radio equipment, that is, not alcohol) you will most likely want to paint your masterpieces. This is a task you DEFINITELY want to do outdoors. Spray enamels and other paints are HIGHLY toxic. As are solvents like Xylene, Toluene, and most other “enes.” Be sure your item is fully dried before you bring it indoors. The rule is——if you can smell it, you’re inhaling toxic fumes. And there are toxic fumes you can’t smell, as well. Many hams spend a lot of time in the basement, which is where they have their ham shacks. Be sure to have carbon monoxide detectors down there, because things that make CO, like crotchety old furnaces, are also frequently located in basements, and you can be poisoned to death in the very same house where the XYL (ham lingo for wife) is upstairs sitting——um——er——ahh——“buoyant, unapprised, and blissful”——watching Sponge Bob on the telly, with no ill effects whatsoever.
We now come to issue number eight: you can have a car crash.
Many radio amateurs have radio stations (hmm--I guess if you’re moving, it really isn’t a station*, is it?) in their cars. It’s a great way to enjoy the hobby while on the move, and you can actually be useful in the process. In fact, in Alaska, they effectively pay us to have ham radios in our cars. We don’t have to pay vehicle registration fees if we have a station capable of operating on at least five shortwave (H.F.) amateur bands. We also get free ham radio license plates; not a bad deal at all. Not every state is as accommodating as Alaska, but since we have about a square mile for every man, woman, and child up here, our State government is doing everything it can to bring more people here. We also have more hams per capita than any other entity on the planet, which is nice for us, too.
The downside of mobile hamming is that most people can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. This has come to light with the proliferation of cell phones in use by drivers, and the resultant proliferation of laws prohibiting the use of cell phones by drivers. Now, I’m not sure an absolute blanket ban on radios and cell phones while driving is called for, but I do believe one should have to acquire an additional endorsement on one’s driver’s license to be allowed to do so.
“I’m sorry, sir/madam, but we don’t believe you’re coordinated enough to talk and drive at the same time. We therefore are issuing you a no-talk driver’s license.”
There is sound reasoning behind a two-tiered driver’s license such as this. Indeed there are numbers of us who could achieve this endorsement. I used to operate MORSE CODE while driving the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles——with a stick-shift vehicle, no less——all without incident. I know many other hams equally qualified to handle this kind of multitasking. So we need to cut some slack.
However, even if you do manage to pass your talking endorsement hands down, there are some reasonable precautions to take. Never wear headphones while driving. You need to hear traffic sounds as well as that Somalian radioteletype station on 15 meters. Do NOT have any equipment that requires you to take your eyes off the road——ever! This includes modes like slow-scan TV, or any other mode where looking at a screen is necessary, like teletype. (Yes, I know hams that have actually done this!) Your radio should be set up to do everything by feel. This limits you to voice modes, and possibly CW.
Of course, if you’re parked, these restrictions don’t apply. Or, if you’re not driving, just “passenging.” Just be sure you aren’t too much of a distraction for the driver. Enough said on that. If you need further elaboration, you probably don’t need to be doing this in the first place.
*[Origin: 1350–1400; < L statiōn- (s. of statiō) a standing still, standing-place, equiv. to stat(us) (ptp. of stāre to stand) + -iōn- -ion; r. ME stacioun < AF < L, as above ]
Number Nine: Lightning
We mentioned earlier that there isn’t much you can do if a lightning bolt has your number on it. However, you can avoid becoming target practice for Thor by understanding a few principles. Maybe.
Tall metal objects attract lightning. And, if you are near a tall metal object, that tall metal object is a shortcut to you. Stay away from tall metal objects when lightning is in the area. If you, like many hams, have a tall tower, there should be a conductive path to ground OTHER than through the coaxial cable to your radio. (And by extension, to you). And, if lightning is in the area, that OUTSIDE path should be the only path to ground. In other words, you should disconnect your transmission lines from your radios, and fling them outside, if at all possible. The time to do this is before you see St. Elmo’s fire crackling off the tips of your Yagi antenna elements.
Now, for the real facts of life. If you have a fifty-foot tower, the only real way to guarantee that it won’t get hit by lightning is to build a two-hundred foot tower next to it. Even that’s not a perfect guarantee, though. Lightning writes its own rules as it goes along. If you get a chance to view some high speed photography of lightning in action, this becomes very apparent.
Lightning is very beautiful, very intriguing, and very necessary for life on Earth. But it’s also a lot bigger than you are. Enjoy it at a distance, so you can enjoy it more than once. See Chapter 15, “Natural Radio,” for some safe, fascinating methods of doing just that.
We now explore strangulation, issue number ten.
One of the great paradoxes of amateur radio is that it takes a lot of wires to launch wireless signals. Wires and living things are called upon to share the same living spaces, when it comes to ham radio. Most hams, at one time or another, at least experiment with wire antennas suspended at roughly neck level. We need not elaborate on the hazards of this. The best solution is to keep your wires well above neck level. This is sometimes difficult to do, because it’s a lot easier to prune, twiddle, and just plain learn on a neck-level wire antenna. But after you’re pruning, twiddling, and learning, get your antennas, “aerials” in the air! Most antennas work better up there anyway.
In passing, I should mention a particular variation on this theme. We have lots of moose wandering around KL7 Land. (KL7 is the traditional prefix for Alaskan ham radio callsigns). Moose necks are a lot higher than people necks. Until you’ve been up close and personal with a moose, (something to be avoided just as much as the aforementioned lightning), you don’t realize how MUCH higher. When a moose stumbles onto your “antenna farm” (not if——when, mind you), your antenna will suffer, not the moose neck. Anything attached to your antenna wire will suffer, as well——your favorite tree, your chimney, your tower——unless the wire is designed to break before your favorite tree, chimney, or tower breaks. Do not use Copperweld (copper clad steel wire, commonly used for antennas) in moose country. Moose necks are not stronger than Copperweld, but both moose necks and Copperweld are stronger than your favorite tree, your chimney, or your tower. Something has to give, and it won’t be pretty. You can work out the math.
(Incidentally, contrary to popular opinion ((aided and abetted by such innocuous depictions as Bullwinkle)) moose are not tame, docile animals. The only thing Bullwinkle got right is that they’re dumb. Columnist Dave Barry accurately describes moose as “the disgruntled postal workers of the animal kingdom.” It behooves you not to attempt to independently verify this claim).
We’re almost there. Item eleven, drowning, awaits our attention. This hazard is akin to the car crash hazard, but with a twist.
There is no better place on earth to do some serious hamming than on the high seas. The seafaring ham has a perfect grounding system, something his landlubber kindred can only dream of. Salt water is a conductor, and for the most part, good conductors make good antennas. (The relationship between good antennas and good grounds is a complex one, which we will discuss thoroughly in later chapters.) Suffice it to say that ham radio is good when you’re at sea.
The problem is that it seems a lot of hams who sail are a lot better at hamming than sailing. Or, perhaps, when faced with such idyllic conditions, hams are just more likely to be concentrating on their hamming than their sailing. The seafaring ham should always be aware that he is on top of a body of water, which, except for relatively short periods of time, is not conducive to human life. He should always wear a life preserver, and have foul weather gear handy. He should have a shipmate that really knows the ropes, in case he doesn’t himself. He should, ideally, know how to swim.
Lightning and sailing seem to be attracted to each other, as well. This is not a recent discovery. St. Elmo, the patron saint of Ancient Mariners, is also the namesake of St. Elmo’s fire, a phenomenon now recognized as corona——a plasma discharge on ships’ rigging, caused by the proximity of lightning. Perceptive sailors for centuries have recognized St. Elmo’s fire as a warning to go below decks, batten down the hatches, and if necessary, throw disobedient prophets overboard. Modern seafaring hams, on the other hand, typically see St. Elmo’s fire as a sign that they should shinny up the aluminum mast and readjust their antennas. Such hams are likely to suffer the dual indignities of being fried and drowned.
Is it worth it? Probably.
And now, we come to the grand finale: hazard twelve.
From the beginning of time, people have not understood Radio Amateurs. When encountering one for the first time, the average citizen doesn’t know whether he should wear a clove of garlic around his neck or don a tin foil hat.
Like most things, lack of understanding breeds fear. For the most part, this fear is entirely unwarranted. Most radio amateurs are people just like——uh——well——uh——just like me.
In the early years of the hobby, most hams were just ignored. Their activities had absolutely nothing to do with anything anyone else was doing. Nobody ever accused them of interfering with their radios, because——well, hams were the only ones who had any radios. In some cases, the hams were the only ones who had electricity, and only because they “rolled their own.”
It wasn’t too long, however, before ordinary citizens started getting their very own radios. And actually, these ordinary citizens were far more akin to the radio amateurs of the time than contemporary ordinary citizens are to contemporary radio amateurs. It took the skill of a safecracker to properly tune in an Atwater Kent radio, even if just to listen to Fibber McGee. The Average Joe knew all about A, B, and C batteries, and knew how to tell if a tube was burned out. So, he actually appreciated his friendly local neighborhood ham, who was an expert in all things electronic——which wasn’t all that much, at the time. The fear and loathing of radio faded away, while the mystery and romance blossomed.
Radio Amateurs achieved hero status during two World Wars. People actually knew who we were.
Some time around the early 1950’s things began to change. The biggest change was that people could use technology without understanding it. This was a profound difference from the early Atwater-Kent era tweaker-citizens. Consumer electronics began to raise its often ugly head. Everybody wanted electronics, but didn’t even want to know how it worked. It was just expected to work. Radios and televisions proliferated, often built extremely cheaply (for the time). And thus were the beginnings of a dreaded new phenomenon, interference. For the most part, properly designed receivers, be it radios, televisions, or garage door openers, are immune to interference from legally-operated amateur radio stations. The rub is this——mass production and proper design are almost mutually exclusive. In the name of economics, engineering shortcuts were taken in most consumer electronics, making them highly susceptible to interference from both Amateur and other commercial radio sources.
This is probably the greatest source of hostility of the average citizen toward the modern radio amateur. Now, though most citizens don’t actually shoot radio amateurs for wiping out their televisions while they’re trying to watch Raw in their boxer shorts, it can nevertheless be a source of un-neighborly feelings and threatened legal actions. Though, fortunately, such legal proceedings almost without exception find in favor of the Radio Amateur——this fact in itself always seems to irritate the “offended” citizen even further.
The best solution to this problem is, of course, to not have any neighbors. Many if not most of us Alaskan amateurs have this option, and it’s a wonderful thing, indeed. However, I understand this is not a viable option in some other places.
So, the next best thing is to exercise some diplomacy, should this problem arise. It also helps to be technically informed, as most of these interference problems can be resolved.
There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel, as well. More and more citizens are abandoning free air television for satellite and other delivery modes, all of which are FAR less susceptible to interference from Amateur Radio than traditional television. It may be that, in the not-too-distant future, Amateur Radio will be so alien to most citizens that we can be, once again, totally ignored.
Hope springs eternal.
Causes Eric Nichols Supports
Free Burma Rangers, Partners Ministries (Thailand), Literacy council of Alaska, Access Alaska.