Entering Ron Cashon’s favorite room in his small house on Belle Fourche St. in Kenwood can seem a bit like stepping back in time, to a point when radio shack referred not to a national chain of electronics stores but to a place where a hobbyist sat in front of lighted dials and glowing vacuum tubes, tuning in distant voices from around the world through static filled background noise.
Parts of the tiny room fits that nostalgic picture perfectly. A chair pulled up to a crowded desk faces a bank of black faced radios, with dials and switches galore. Two walls are covered with certificates, some yellowing with age, attesting to participation in a variety of amateur radio activities. A couple of cabinets bulge with card files, recording the contacts Cashon has made over his 54 years as a ‘ham’ radio operator.
But a computer set up on a small tray next to the desk, and the digital readouts on many of the radios show that not everything in Cashon’s hideaway dates from an earlier era of electronic communication.
And the aftermath of natural disasters like the ‘super storm’ called Sandy that hit the East Coast last week, Cashon believes, shows the relevance of ham radio operators and their equipment in the age of cell phone and internet communications.
Amateur (ham) radio is the use of specific portions of the radio frequency spectrum for private recreation, non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation and emergency communication, according to the Wikipedia website. The use of ham radio is regulated by national governments, and internationally through International Telecommunication Regulations. Ham operators must pass tests on knowledge of electronics and the regulations governing radio operatons. Estimates put the number of radio ‘hams’ at about two million worldwide, with some 830,000 in the Americas.
In Chadron, the hobby is represented by the Pine Ridge Amateur Radio Club. Cashon, a long time member of the club, isn’t sure how many people belong to the group, but said that about ten are the most active. Besides a weekly coffee shop meeting, the group holds regular simulated disaster training excercises, most recently on Oct. 6, to verify operators’ ability to communicate in emergency situations.
Because of Sandy, normal communication channels were disrupted for several days in New York and New Jersey, according to reports. A story on the Computer Work website said that 25 percent of cell phone sites in 158 counties in ten states were out of service one day after Sandy hit, and the next day 20 percent were still not operating. That, and the failure of electric power in a wide swath of the storm-hit area, left millions of people without distant communication abilities.
In such situations, ham radio operators, using portable stations and emergency generators, can be an invaluable aid to emergency responders and law enforcement, according to Cashon.
it’s a view shared by Jack, a ham radio operator in Jacksonville, Florida, who responded to a call on the ten meter band, as Cashon demonstrated his radio hobby for a reporter last week.
“Ham radio is for emergency communication,” Jack said. “It’s a great hobby, but if it came down to a national emergencyÉwhen cell phones go down, then radios are the only way people have to communicate.”
Cashon has participated in numerous disaster simulations, and some real emergency activities, since he first got started in ham radio in 1958. “My father got me into it,” he said. “i started studying (Morse) code. Back then you had to know code (to get a license).”
Knowledge of Morse code is no longer required for a basic ham license, but many hobbyists, including Cashon, still use it. “I can send and receive 30 words per minute,” he said. ‘I use code all the time.”
Cashon’s primary activity on the radio, though, is talking with people from around the country, and around the world.”I’m just a talker. I just have to get on and what they call ‘rag chew,’” he said.
Cashon said he spends several hours each morning and evening on the air. He logs in to a number of ‘nets’ of organized hams who talk with each other regularly. “I do South Dakota nets, Nebraska nets, Wyoming nets,” he said. “There are thousands of nets I could get on.’
When hams start talking, they typically first announce their call letters-Cashon is K0PTK- location, and type of equipment and signal strength. A report on current weather conditions is also a frequent part of the exchange. Atmospheric conditions and the electromagnetic waves put out by the sun play a major role in how well radio signals carry, so hams are alert to both weather and sunspot activity. “Lots of people like to know what’s going on around the country,” Cashon said. “People are tracking to know what the weather would be.”
The weather in Jacksonville last Thursday was about the same as in Chadron, Jack reported. Hurricane Sandy didn’t hit the area, and the storm’s passage brought clear skies and good conditions for radio signals, he said.
Pat, a ham from Schenectady, N.Y. who joined the discussion, said his area too had escaped any storm damage. “We never skipped a beat, but three hours south it’s total mayhem,” he said. Ham operators in the storm area were likely very busy, Pat added.
Talking to other operators and recording the contacts, known to hams as ‘working’ is a popular aspect of the hobby. “I’ve probably worked 75 countries,” said Jack, a medical doctor, who said he started as a ham in 1969 and got back into the hobby about 15 years ago.
“ I have worked all states,” said Cashon. “I haven’t worked all countries-they have a lot of new ones.”
He has also worked on emergency communications, making contacts for law enforcement and other agencies during storms, and is now the assistant emergency coordinator for amateur radio operations in the region.
Cashon, like most hams, keeps a ‘log’ that records every contact he makes. For years the logs were kept exclusively on paper, but recently computer logs have become popular, he said.
Besides logging contacts and helping with emergency communications, there are many other aspects to ham radio, said Jack. “You can bounce signals off satellites, you can bounce signals off the moon,” he said. “Electronics is fascinating.”
Just talking to people from all over the world is a big attraction of ham operations, Jack said. “It’s a lot of fun. You meet many people,” he said. “I’d like to see more people get into it.”
“This is a good hobby,” agreed Pat. “There are more ham radio people every week, even in this age of technology.”
“It’s the greatest hobby in the world,” said Cashon, who estimates that the cost of his radio set up, which includes radios in his bedroom and in two automobiles, besides his main console, runs to thousands of dollars.
But that money was spent over many years, he said, and entry level equipment is affordable enough that almost anyone can experience the enjoyment of amateur radio.
“I love my ham radio,” said Cashon. “I’m really proud of it.”
Anyone interested in learning more about ham radio can contact Cashon at 432-3322.