February 2020

Retiring into the Boyish Pleasures of Ham Radio

I’m a septuagenarian amateur radio operator in the internet age, a ham radio hobbyist who operates almost exclusively with the Morse code, a form of communication not even required for emergency use anymore. I’m one of those boys who embraced ham radio in the 1950s and are still at it.

I haven’t gone out of style yet.

Despite the rise of cellphones and the internet, there are more licensed ham radio operators today than ever, about 750,000 in the U.S. alone. In part, this is due to new platforms and available modes like satellite communications and moon bounce. While women amateurs remain a minority, their numbers are increasing.

Several times a week, a group of ham operators gathers at a Shenandoah Valley Wendy’s for lunch. Most are retired from a wide range of careers. Attendance varies. Sometimes talk is about radio, but often it includes other topics except politics. There is a shared understanding in amateur radio that politics is off-limits.

Lately I’ve been pondering two questions. Why did so many of us get into amateur radio as young boys in the 1950s? And now in our senior years, why are we still at it?

COMING OF AGE

Susan Douglas’ book on the history of radio, “Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination,” has some answers. She argues that the interest among boys was partly due to what was happening in the 50s and partly due to the nature of 20th century masculinity.

In the post-World War II era, radio waves were again free for non-military use. The radio spectrum was, as Douglas says, an undeveloped wilderness. Between 1954 and 1959, the years when I became licensed, the number of ham operators nearly doubled.

Ham radio, says Douglas, was a place where men could “escape the constraints of conventionalized masculinity” while still pursuing masculine interests. In other words, it provided a way for boys who didn’t fit the John Wayne style of masculinity to find a place.

Boys like me.

I was shy, an introvert. I was not very competitive and not at all interested in sports. I loved to invent and tinker, often fashioning things out of junk parts. Electronics, and especially radio, provided an arena in which I could explore, create, develop skills and even achieve some level of technological competence.

I had won a crystal radio on my paper route. While trying to figure out why it didn’t work, I met local ham operators and an elderly radio repairman, a networking skill which would turn out to be important in my professional life.

On the air, I chatted with people around the world with similar interests. Though our brief chats were rarely profound, there was a connection. Locally, I found a few peers who shared my interests.

THE CODE CONNECTION

Like many men in my cohort, I was off the air (QRT, in radioese) during much of my work and family life, reengaging during my late 50s after the children were gone and becoming more active as I moved toward retirement.

Why have I returned to it after a satisfying career in unrelated arenas?

In my younger years, I liked to fish, using ultralight gear to increase the challenge and excitement. I have given up fishing.

However, radio is a kind of electronic catch-and-release fishing.

It relies on skill, involves interesting gear, and has the excitement and serendipity of hooking something or someone you can’t see, and no person or creature gets hurt. As in ultralight fishing, some of the time I use low power (QRP) to increase the challenge.

For me, radio always has been about the technical and creative aspects as much as the on-air experience. I love to build, restore, customize equipment, to solve technical problems, as much or more than being on the air.

Morse code, or “cw” as it is called, is a craft and a challenge. When I returned to amateur radio after years away, one of my goals was to become a good cw operator: learning to decode in my head and to send with ideal spacing and rhythm. Often when chatting with someone on the air, one of us remarks that we are getting in our “cw fix” for the day.

As Douglas writes, “Behind the stereotype of ‘old fat guys in basements’ are people who insist that radio be participatory, active, noncommercial, educational, personally liberating and democratic.”

Radio might not give me the physical exercise I need, but it lets me tinker, create and exercise my brain. It provides me with a transnational community that spans vocations and class, a community that becomes more important as I retire from my vocations in justice, education and photography.

And it keeps me connected.