Photo by Anthony Caciopo
Operating his ham radio rig from a car battery being charged with a solar panel, Linas Matonis, of Hickory Hills, transmits from his tent at the annual Hamfesters Radio Club Field Day, held this year at Altman Park in Worth. The battery enabled him to carry on making contact with fellow radio operators into the night.
In this age of constant communication -- where friends are just a text, tweet, or SnapChat away - few are readily prepared for the possible worst case scenario: a natural disaster happens, traditional power sources fail and there is no way to know what dangers lay ahead.
And yet, that is where a technology that has existed since Marconi comes in and, thankfully, there are those practicing for these moments of crisis in a time where most people think they can handle anything.
Hamfesters Radio Club-W9AA held their annual 24 hour Field Day on June 24 and Sunday in Worth’s Altman Park. The day is designed for Ham radio operators -- “Hams” for short -- to set up various stations in order to use their equipment to make contacts around North America for competitive points as well as to ensure that their equipment works in the field in case of an emergency.
Jim Riley, club chairman, former proprietor of Riley’s Trick Shop and lieutenant for the Emergency Management Agency, explained, “My wife says, ‘Why do you do this?’ I tell her, ‘Field Day is not a matter of life and death: it’s much more important than that.’ Of course, when her birthday falls on Field Day, that’s another story.”
The hams do indeed take Field Day and their practice very seriously. A stroll about the grounds -- only 1,000 feet in circumference -- reveal five separate stations using different antennas and forms of communication ranging from the relatively low tech Morse Code to high-tech new age forms of radio involving computers and solar panels.
Each station operates completely on power that would only be available in the case of an emergency. Former club president and commander in the Emergency Management Agency Don Pointer explained the importance of hams being prepared for scenarios like this.
“The National Weather Service relies extremely heavily on the Ham radio community,” Pointer said. “Many, many ham radio operators are also trained weather spotters. So, when they phone in a report, the weather service takes it very seriously. When ham radios call in [the National Weather Service] then can get that information on their website and out to the local media.”
W9AA is a collection of people who have been practicing the art of ham radio and have actively participated in reporting on natural disasters for decades; several, including Pointer and Riley, were active during the Plainfield tornado of 1990.
The one thing that all hams seem to have in common, whether they are old hat or relative rookies, besides a general interest in radio communications, is a shared love for technology. Linas Matonis, of Hickory Hills, oversaw one of the most interesting rigs in the entire camp: a radio attached to a car battery powered by a solar panel.
“I got into [ham radio] because I have a general interest in electronics,” Matonis said while manning a rig that mixed one of the oldest forms of mass communication with one of the trendiest power sources available.
Each Ham is a master of technical speak, talking to one another in a sort of secret code that they are always glad to explain to outsiders. Those outsiders play a key role in Field Day. Aside from providing friendly competition and preparedness awareness to Hams around the country, the day also works as a sort of recruitment tool.
All were welcome to try their hands at the craft of amateur radio and some outsiders did, including Palos’ own in-house baseball team as well as this reporter.
The act itself of making a contact with one of upwards of 40,000 hams across North America is one that requires patience and focus. So much patience and focus, in fact, that a short burst of applause was in order when I managed to make contact with a station in north Florida (call letters K4FC). There is a certain undeniable thrill that comes from shouting, “Whiskey-Nine-Alpha-Alpha!” (radio call letters must be delivered phonetically for clarity) into the microphone and hearing back from someone hundreds of miles away. While a Florida contact may be impressive to a greenhorn at ham radio, many hams partaking in this field day have made contacts from around the globe.
Riley’s trailer wall is lined with postcards from far-flung correspondents in Nigeria, Estonia and Tahiti. Matonis boasts of a contact as far away as Indonesia.
In Altman Park, there were only five tents set up, but the hams were in full force that day, ready to make contact.
Hamfesters Radio Club-W9AA meet on the first Friday of every month at the Crestwood Community Center at 14025 S. Kostner Ave. Meetings begin at 7:30 p.m. and typically last until 9:30 p.m. For more information on upcoming events or how to join, visit www.hamfesters.org.