Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The 13 Original Colonies Ham Radio Special Event

 From the Stoop of PJH:

This year, for the Fourth of July holiday, despite the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, I made a point of visiting with each of the 13 Original Colonies. In fact, I have done so for each of the last ten Fourth of July holidays. Yet, to do so, I never left my apartment! Please let me explain.

Since I was about ten years of age, I have had a fascination with radio. My old man used to say that radio waves went through my head. Yet, the old man loved radio too and he in fact, began me on the journey by buying my first radio kit and helping me to assemble the radio. You can read about this adventure in my collection of Christmas stories, titled “Reflections. The Christmas Collection.”

There is something special about tuning in a hockey game over the radio! It is still my preferred method of listening to hockey games and sports.

Anyway, I have been a ham radio operator since that young age, I did some time as a military radio operator, and the fascination continues to this day.

Now, ham radio AKA, amateur radio, as many things have, sure has progressed since when I first began in the hobby. The radios are all high tech now, we use computers for logging contacts and even for communicating through digital sound card modes such as FT-8, FT-4 and others, where the computers do the encoding and decoding of the transmissions. It is all fascinating and while I dabble in the technology, on the Fourth of July, I stick to the basics with the first digital mode and in my opinion still the most effective, good old Morse Code. I am a dinosaur. A code operator. I speak the language fluently. I love it. Retro PJH! In fact, I am still old school with ham radio and without too. For example, even though I use a computer to log my contacts, I still keep and use my old ARRL spiral bond logbook. I log the contacts in both places. I love pencil and paper and the files never corrupt. No stress. Simple.

Back to my explanation of my journey. Every year for the Fourth of July, a wonderful group of ham radio operators, activate a special on-the-air event where all 13 Original Colonies are on the air and the fun and the challenge is to contact all of them. The group that sponsors the event, provides a full-color beautiful certificate for your wall, marking your achievement and all you need to do is send in your logbook of contacts and a small donation to cover the costs of printing and mailing and such. This year of 2020 is the 11th anniversary of the event and to my recollection, I only missed taking part during the first year. It is a wonderful event, tons of fun and has grown from grass roots into a tremendous event. I look forward to it every year and this year was no different. In fact, with all the COVID-19 calamity even more so. It was a very quiet holiday around my parts. Eerily quiet with only a handful of fireworks set off in and around the apartment complex. No outdoor gatherings, no cookouts, no people outside or milling around the apartment complex. It was strange. The weather was nasty and hot and humid, not ideal for being comfortable outside, and the virus made it all the easier to stay inside.

Most years, I contact all the 13 Original Colonies, for what we know as a “Clean Sweep” and this year was no different. There are also bonus stations, with one station operating in England to honor our heritage and one in Philadelphia to honor the site of the beginning of that heritage. I contacted the Philadelphia station but not the English station.

Since I am in an apartment, I am limited by community restrictions that void the use of outside antennas, and to avoid any interference with my neighbor’s electronics, I run very low power, known as QRP in ham radio world. That is 5 watts of RF output power or less. That is about the same amount of power used to light up a small night light in the old filament days! Not much power, but it is all that I need. I have many radios in my collection, but my preferred radio these days is an Icom IC-7200 set to five watts of output power. With 5 watts or fewer and by utilizing Morse Code, I have contacted all fifty of the states of the union and well over 100 countries around the world. Unlike the human spoken voice (even with speech processing AKA auto-tune) the code punches through with low power!

How do you do this with no outside antennas? I could use an indoor antenna up on my second floor. I live alone, so I can make the choice to string wires and such all over the apartment, and create some indoor havoc, but without getting too technical, wavelengths of the ham radio frequencies versus physical antenna length would make this option limited in my operating choices. Instead, I use some stealth and innovation and some technology. I use a small wire with an alligator clip on the end and run the wire out the lower window of the apartment and clip the wire to the metal downspout of the rain gutter. The downspout runs up the apartment wall and then connects to a rain gutter that runs across the front of the apartment building for about eighty feet or thereabouts. I then clip the other end of the wire to the hot side of a special device known as an antenna tuner. I use the automatic antenna tuner (Icom model AH-4) to add capacitance and inductance to electrically adjust the physical length of the metal gutter and downspout to match the frequency of my transmitter. The tuner has the antenna wire on the one side of the tuner and I roll out a ground plane of counterpoise wire for a ground on the other side of the tuner and clip one wire to a cold-water copper pipe under the kitchen sink. It works quite well and I can tune every ham radio frequency rather easily. When I am finished operating, I undo the wire clip from the downspout, disconnect all the remaining wires and roll all the wires onto a wire reel and stow it away for next time. It all fits in a small plastic box. Simple, effective and fun and I void no rules and create no havoc.

Because of the nature of my work and the twists and turns of life, I have lived in many areas after leaving my home State of New Jersey and growing up in the Paterson area. My love for Paterson and for New Jersey is well-documented in my many books and works. Every year, it seems as if during this special event, one of the states I’ve previously lived in becomes the last and most difficult colony to contact. Part of the reason is that I use Morse Code and us dinosaurs are becoming rarer and rarer and code station are harder to find and the rest of the reason is well, just a mystery!

This year, I chased New Jersey all around the airwaves. The stations were active on voice modes, on the digital modes, but scarce on the code frequencies. I finally snagged them late on Sunday afternoon and the list was complete! Thank you, radio station and the operator at station K2I.

These days, I am so busy with my work and my writing and my photography and the other things that I venture into that I do not have as much time as I would like to get on the airwaves, but I never miss the 13 Original Colonies Special Event.

All of this made for an enjoyable holiday weekend. It also provided a relaxing escape from the stress of the current world events and the madness that surrounds us each day. It also provides a glimpse into the history of America and leaves me with a touch of patriotic pride too. I love history and by participating in this event, I learned many interesting tidbits about American history, such as almost eighty percent of citizens cannot name all 13 Original Colonies. The most common error is including Vermont in the mix. I also find it interesting that they do not realize the stripes on our flag represent the 13 Original Colonies. Which makes me think; the stars are the fifty states; the stripes are the 13 Original Colonies, so the flag represents the people. Not the government, not the Office of the President, nor the military, nor the Congress; the people. Us! Why disrespect the flag when it represents the people? As the wise old bartender named Pete told me at a bar in Oakland, California, a few years back, “The trouble with us Americans these days is that we forget history.” Anyway, that story is for another blog down the road, wherever.

Thank you to the event sponsors and the many great amateur radio operators who activate the colonies and this old radioman at station WA2ASQ, warmly appreciates your efforts. You are really professionals, not amateurs at all! Only in title, but not in practice!

Always remember, as my old man used to say, in his New Jersey growl, “Amateurs built the Ark, and professionals built the Titanic. Which one ya wanna take a ride on?”

Here is the link to the official web page for the event.

Cheerio for now. 

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