Ham Radio: Not Just For Science Nerds

My status as a prepper means I’ve developed something of a varied skill set over the years, from spinning wool to the martial arts. So you’d think by now I’d have learned to think twice when the thoughts, “Oh, I could never do that,” and “that kind of thing isn’t for people like me,” enter my head.

I used to think that way about canning fruit, but now I can knock out a batch of apple pie filling in like an hour and a half and it’s not even a big deal. But it took quite a bit of nudging for me to think that hamradio was something I could add to my ever-growing list of hobbies, especially given my status as a liberal arts (not science) major.

My high school in Texas had a very active ham radio club. They advertised their club meetings aggressively and were very active in trying to recruit more members. I ignored them because I mistakenly thought that ham radio was for a much different class of nerd than the one I occupied. Specifically: the class of people who know what capacitors and resistors are and what they do, can solder things, collect wires, and think mistakes in circuits are the best kinds of jokes. I certainly had a thing for Star Trek, but was more of a Latin Club, Lord of the Rings kind of gal. Ham radio wasn’t for people like me.

Why now?

Given my status as a stay-at-home mom of three kids, communication in an emergency is something that has weighed heavily on my mind as we’ve refined our preparation strategy. What if, in a scenario that involved downed cellphone towers and zero internet access, I desperately needed to send for help? Amateur radio has a proven track record and is known to be an excellent means of communication in times like I have described. It helped that some folks in my neighborhood asked me to be the go-to emergency preparedness person; that gave me the nudge I needed to bite the bullet and get my Technician’s license.

With some trepidation, I checked out the ARRL liscensing manualfrom the library and spent some time reading through it. I wasn’t very many pages in when I looked up from my studying and asked my electrical engineering-major husband, “How come I’m the one getting into this stuff and not you? You could probably pass the exam without even studying at all.” Much of the study material was far outside my comfort zone. I managed to find time to study several nights a week for the better part of a month, and with the help of online study aides like Ham Study and Ham Exam I successfully passed the licensing exam on my first try.

The Test.

I signed up for a crash-course of sorts that took place before the exam, in hopes that it would fill in any gaps in my studying. I went in there expecting to find mostly stereotypical engineer-nerd types: guys ranging in their early 20s to mid 40s with little dress sense and worse social skills. The type of people who actually attended surprised me. I sat in between two silver-haired ladies, both of whom loved nothing more than to regale me with stories about their grandchildren. A middle-aged guy sitting in back of me attended the class with his two teenage daughters and his mother-in-law.

I also had the false expectation that old-timers in radio would scoff and roll their eyes at the idea of a housewife trying to become a ham, much like one sees in the gamer community. (“Pfft, n00bs.”) Quite to the contrary, all the hams with whom I’ve interacted have been overjoyed to welcome more people into their fold. When I contacted the local university if I could, as an alumna, participate in their radio club, the advisor gave me an enthusiastic affirmative response. It’s a little like a religious movement in this aspect –underneath everything, hams feel a glimmer of hope that they can convert everyone they know.

The test itself is set up for this. It covers only the bare minimum of what new hams should know before getting on the air. All test questions and answers are open to the public, so you could easily, if you were so inclined, simply memorize the correct answers without actually understanding anything about radio. The clear goal is to freely give people the tools needed to get started, in hopes that they will get “the bug.” Many of the questions are simple enough that children as young as ten can and do pass the exam and become licensed amateur radio operators. This should be a lesson for us all – if a kid can do it, there’s no reason why any literate adult can’t do the same.

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