Hams make friends all over the world

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Tom Workman makes many contacts over radio, but the most memorable is easy for him to identify.

In 1993, Mr. Workman, of Harmony, found a silent frequency and put out a call, telling anyone listening that he was in the Pittsburgh area. Soon after, a response came from a man in Russia, who asked if Pittsburgh was near New Jersey. "From your perspective, yes," Mr. Workman said.

What followed was a friendship over shortwave radio; about a year later Mr. Workman and his Russian friend met in Washington, D.C.

"I not only had the opportunity to speak to somebody from a faraway land," Mr. Workman, 47, said. "I got the opportunity to meet him, and it was all done through global communication over the airwaves."

Mr. Workman is an amateur radio enthusiast or -- as he and others who practice the hobby call themselves -- a ham. He and other hams use shortwave radios to communicate around the world.

Mr. Workman is a member of the Steel City Amateur Radio Club. That organization will hold a 24-hour open house, starting Saturday at 2 p.m., in its Carnegie clubhouse. The event is part of a national field day when hams around the country test their emergency broadcast capabilities and try to make contacts with as many others as possible, recording each contact in a log, club president Art Mueller said.

The club, founded in 1940, is home to about 65 members. About 700,000 licensed amateurs operate in the U.S., and more than 2 million more around the world, according to the American Radio Relay League, an association of hams which coordinates the field day nationally.

From their clubhouse, outfitted with plenty of radio equipment and a vintage soda machine, the Steel City hams are able to talk with others in any country, with the help of several antennae around the site. The location, in a small field atop a steep driveway, is one of the highest points in Allegheny County, Mr. Mueller said.

Earlier this week Mr. Mueller, 67, of McDonald, demonstrated amateur radio to a visitor. He found a frequency on which two other hams were talking. Then Mr. Mueller identified himself, providing his location and his call sign, WA3BKD. Two hams responded: One was in South Carolina, the other in Georgia.

Sitting before a VCR-sized transceiver, he switched frequencies, next finding a ham in Canada and another in Maryland. Each identified themselves by name, location and call sign.

The call signs, which the Federal Communications Commission distributes when licensing amateurs, are second names of sorts; hams provide them with their legal names when talking over the air.

Topics of conversation among amateurs vary. Hams often share the kind of radio equipment they're using. But many simply enjoy hearing about where others on air are from.

"You get a chance to talk to people all over the world," Mr. Mueller said. "It's like walking up to a complete stranger."

After making contact, many amateurs also send each other cards printed with their call signs and broadcast locations. Mr. Mueller's collection includes cards from around the world, including several from individuals in the former Soviet Union, some with whom he spoke during the Cold War.

"We look at ourselves as ambassadors, and we take that role very seriously," he said.

Assisting in natural disasters, when other forms of communication fail, is another role of hams, who helped emergency workers during Hurricane Katrina, wildfires in California and various tornadoes. The Steel City Club is equipped with generators that will run when power fails.

Mr. Mueller said after the Johnstown flood of 1977, he and other hams spent three days in their clubhouse relaying information over airwaves.

The annual field day is a chance for the Steel City club to make sure its emergency equipment is working, but, since 1977, no incidents have called the club into action.

Until then, hams have plenty of fun "playing radio" with others around the world.

"It fascinates me to be able to sit in my basement with someone in Uzbekistan," Mr. Mueller said. "You never know who you're going to find."

The Steel City Amateur Radio Club is located at 208 McMichael Road in Carnegie. The clubhouse will be open to the public for 24 hours from 2 p.m. Saturday.


Marcus Schwarz: mschwarz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1964.


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