Gene Clark, left, and Neal Moseley, aka WB4PNB, participate in the ARRL ham radio Field Day, held at the MCLB-Albany through today. Radio club members throughout the U.S. and Canada compete to see how many stations can be contacted in a 24-hour period.
ALBANY, Ga. -- For a hundred years or more they've been known as "hams," but fried chicken was on the menu for the picnic part of the event.
Members of the Albany Amateur Radio Club were gathered Saturday -- as they do each 4th full weekend in June -- for their annual Field Day. This year they were guests of the Marine Corps Logistics Base - Albany. The official purpose of the meeting, a part of the nationwide Field Day of the American Radio Relay League, is to contact as many other stations as possible in a 24-hour period. Most members come strictly for the fun of it, they say.
"We could hold it in a cow pasture, or outdoors at the Marine Base," said Gene Clark, 84, otherwise known as W4AYK, his call letters since 1958. "The point of it is to have a good time and to simulate an emergency situation."
Clark, a retired Albany physician, said that while the citizen operators have a great time socializing and making friends by radio, there's a serious side to the endeavor. Without warning, disaster -- natural or otherwise -- might render a community "powerless," with no standard means of communication. That's where hams step in.
"We have worked with the Marine Base some on emergency communications," Clark said, "I guess this is the way they're saying 'thank-you.'"
But why are they called "hams?" Clark is quick say that no one knows for sure. The prevailing theory -- the one Clark favors -- goes back more than a hundred years, to the day operators tapped Morse code through brass telegraph keys.
"Apparently some of the amateurs weren't very good," Clark said, "and made a mess of the messages sometimes. They were said to be 'ham-fisted.'"
According to Clark, many radio enthusiasts still use wireless Morse code at times, even though it's not required to gain a license.
While some of the members had plugged their laptops into commercial power outlets Saturday, both of the movable "stations" operated strictly from pre-charged batteries, Clark said, to further emergency simulation and to garner competition points.
"We're operating on 100 watts today," Clark said. "Some stations will operate on just five watts to multiple their points. There are even stations that use solar power. That's a real point-multiplier."
Scattered around the station site were a variety of consumer literature, available for any wannabe enthusiast who cared to wander by.
"We'd like to build a relationship with the Marine Base and also with the community," Clark said. "We want to be in touch with kids ten-years-old and older, with 75-year-olds -- anyone who might be interested in amateur radio, because it's a lot of fun and it's service to the community."
According to the ARRL, total costs for becoming a ham operator is about $40 for FCC testing materials, plus around $200 for basic radio equipment. For further information, call Eugene Clark, Georgia section manager, at (229) 888-1090 or (229) 344-1895.