STOKESVILLE – You can hear the slight static electricity coming from a small trailer near the Stokesville Observatory.
It might sound a bit confusing, but then you can start to understand what they are saying.
“Kilo, four, marine, radio, alpha,” shouts an operator into a handheld radio.
Two people are seated at a small table. One with the radio system and a sheet of paper, the other with his hands on the keyboard typing in the call numbers. They matter who they talk to. The last three letters read “SFL”, which stands for South Florida. The team just spoke to a carrier four states away.
This is called amateur radio and it is a form of amateur radio, which is used for emergency communication purposes or just for fun.
It is connected to a whole system. You could be talking to the person across the street or someone across the country – even across the world.
Gordon Batey has been playing with amateur radio since the 1950s. He first started playing with receivers and got hooked. Everything is done without cell phones, internet and modern equipment – or at least it can be.
With advances in technology, amateur radios can be operated entirely by a computer system called a software-designed radio. And then other times it can go super old school with a Morse code with a telegraph key.
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“I think we’re a connected world,” said Jared Weaver, Batey’s son-in-law. “But we can come here and get off the grid.”
Over the weekend, the region, the Valley Amateur Radio Association and the Massanutten Amateur Radio Association participated in the annual World Amateur Radio Day – in which people from all over the world participate for 24 hours. The goal is to get the most contacts or get in touch with as many different operators and stations.
Valley Amateur Radio has been around since the 1970s and has around 50 members. The Massanutten group is an offshoot. Batey has been attending the annual field days for decades and it’s a chance to hang out, camp and be around the area’s hams, as they’re called.
For Batey, it has become a family affair. His son-in-law Weaver joined him in the field day events along with his two granddaughters, Kayli and Kristen.
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This weekend, they reached Puerto Rico and Canada. This reporter was able to talk to someone off the coast of Canada, in a boat.
“We try to talk to as many stations as possible,” Batey said.
FIND THE FREQUENCY
It’s kind of a rush when you hear the call sign – it’s the combination of numbers and letters people call when talking on a frequency.
“I hear you, high frequency,” Weaver shouts.
All hams must be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. You get certified after passing a test and are able to go on the air. Although during the day in the field, some people who are not authorized, such as Batey’s granddaughter, Kayli, are allowed to help or call numbers, as long as they are with a licensed operator.
“It’s an event to let fans and the general public know what we can do,” said Ellsworth Neff, who came to the event this weekend. “When all else fails, we are there.”
Batey said amateur radios are the simplest form of communication. Think back to 9/11, when phone signals were jammed because everyone was trying to call on their cell phones. With amateur radio, it’s on a different frequency, allowing emergency communications to go uninterrupted.
So how do groups work?
An AM radio band is marked from 535 to 1605 kilohertz, according to the National Amateur Radio Association.
There are other bands of the radio spectrum for amateur, government, military, and commercial radio. Amateurs are allocated 26 bands, the association says, spaced from 1.8 megahertz, which is just above broadcast radio frequencies, up to 275 gigahertz, according to its website.
You can scan the tapes, allowing you to talk to someone across town, the world or even via satellites in space, the association said. There are different forms of communication via amateur radio. This can be voice, satellite, digital or Morse code.
“There are so many things you can experience,” Batey said.
For Batey, he prefers Morse code. He has hearing issues, so voice ham radio can be difficult, especially if he’s talking to someone in another country.
“You never know who’s going to talk to you,” he said.
Batey has an amateur radio in his car and in the basement of his Staunton home.
“I like to go out there and do a CQ (or a call) and see who I get,” he said.
It boils down to how they can talk to anyone through it. For Batey with Morse code he is able to have a full conversation with people in Germany or Russia without having to translate.
Morse code decoding
How amateur radio operators still rely on Morse code for communication. Video by Laura Peters
“When you transmit a Morse code signal, it’s a very narrow band signal and it’s very efficient at getting through, whereas a voice signal is much wider and not as efficient,” he said. “You can communicate much more effectively with Morse code than with voice.”
It’s a skill that people like to pass on. Weaver said people involved in amateur radio enjoy mentoring others. Now it’s something he can enjoy not only with his stepfather, but also with his daughters. As technology advances, many radio amateurs enjoy experimenting with new things, despite how old they are or how much they love old-school amateur radio methodology.
“When I was a teenager, I used to listen to my grandfather’s radio and hear people talking to each other, just regular people.” said Jeff Rinehart, one of the founding members of Valley Amateur Radio. “It’s just a regular conversation between people but you can’t see each other.”
Follow Laura Peters @peterslaura and @peterpants. You can reach her at email@example.com or 213-9125.