HAM Radio 101

Memories of Field Day

Field Day… it’s not just an operating event, it’s the holiest ham radio weekend on the calendar in the U.S. and Canada. Since 1933, hams have been taking gear to meadows, beaches, parking lots, mountaintops, and, yes, fields, to set up temporary stations with alternative power and makeshift antennas.

Partly for fun, partly for emergency preparedness, and with a good chunk of PR thrown in for good measure, Field Day brings together clubs, friends, and families in fellowship and camaraderie like few other events do. People come together and survive searing heat, brutal cold, every type of precipitation known to man, dubious foods, solar flares, and rough operating conditions…often all during the same weekend. For a young ham, it’s also a rite of passage, the baptismal waters where one’s status as a ham radio operator is permanently sealed, with memories made and held closely for a lifetime.

I received my Novice license in 1982 at the age of 14. This was due to the efforts of a few guys at the University of Illinois Synton Amateur Radio Club, W9YH. My license arrived on May 20. Talk was already underway for what the club was going to do for Field Day. As the new ham (and the only Novice licensee in the club, as I recall), I was quickly recruited to be the Novice station, a separate transmitter which could only be operated by Novice licensees. Between getting my license and Field Day, I made a total of TWELVE contacts.

One of the club members came by my place early on Saturday morning and picked me up, along with my Heathkit HW-101, recently purchased from another Synton club member. We drove out to the Field Day site, a 100′ tall observation tower owned by the university, with a 10′ x 10′ room at the top. An observation deck was atop the room. It was hot and windy, and we all carried several loads of heavy gear up the many stairs and started setting up our antennas, sloping dipoles off the rails of the observation deck at the top of this giant tower. I was given a corner of one of the operating tables and told to get ready. I was surrounded by a bunch of college students who were treating the event like a party, and it was! There may have been a lot of beer passed around that day, and there may have been a girlfriend or two who showed up, and there might have been a couple of people running around in their underwear, but I was young and focused on the radio…for the most part.

I started off on 15 meters and worked what I recall as a flurry of stations in the Novice CW band. At some point, I remember getting tapped on the shoulder and told I was needed on the observation deck; they were going to try and work some guy named Oscar. It turned out they were trying to make some contacts through one of the ham radio satellites, and I was needed to be the human antenna rotator. I had no idea what I was doing. It was a comedy of errors—“No, no, point it THAT way!”—I don’t think a single contact was made via satellite.

Somebody made a run to KFC and brought back about 50 pounds of chicken and all the trimmings. We descended on that chicken like a pack of hyenas. I distinctly remember my Radio Shack straight key got VERY greasy, and I couldn’t find a napkin to wipe it off with.

Sunset came, and I worked stations on 80 meters before trying to get some sleep. I ended up on the observation deck at the top of the tower. I rolled my sleeping bag out and remember I had to turn the bag around, as the wind was blowing right into my bag. I fell asleep with the wind in my hair, a billion stars in the sky, and CW ringing in my head.

I woke up with the morning sun, which was about 5 am. It was quiet in the radio room; a few people were sleeping on the floor and a couple of guys were still on the air, having stayed up all night. I grabbed a can of warm Coke, got on 40 meters, and started calling CQ.

Most of Sunday is a blur. I remember going down to the ground level and finding one of the guys groaning in the back of his station wagon, the victim of a late-night diet of beer and room-temperature chicken. I also remember nearly falling down the stairs while packing my gear as we were breaking down the site; we were all pretty tired. After we had cleaned up the site, somebody dropped me off at my house and helped me unpack my gear in the driveway. I got it all in, took a shower, and went straight to bed.

In my mind, I had worked the biggest pileup you could possibly imagine…hundreds of stations! When I looked at my Field Day log, it only had 47 contacts in it. It sure SEEMED like several hundred at the time.

Field Day has given me lots of great memories in my nearly forty years of being licensed: sleeping in the middle of a prairie, freezing in a tent while riding out a hailstorm, one glorious weekend in a barn built just after the Civil War, and a couple of spectacular openings, including one year at ARRL headquarters where I made nearly 700 contacts on 6 meters. All those Field Days are great in their own way, even the ones with bad weather. But as with love, your first will always remain your sentimental favorite, because it opened the door to all the others.

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