Ham radio hobby brings family together

February 01, 2002 11:00 pm
Debbie and Calvin Henshaw are ham radio enthusiasts. So are their kids, Jillian, 12 (lower left), Bobby, 14, and Nike, 16. (Baker City Herald/Jayson Jacoby).
Debbie and Calvin Henshaw are ham radio enthusiasts. So are their kids, Jillian, 12 (lower left), Bobby, 14, and Nike, 16. (Baker City Herald/Jayson Jacoby).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

In Calvin and Debbie Henshaws Baker City home, the kids dont fight over remote controls or video game pads.

They want the microphone.

The one that dangles from the familys amateur (better known as ham) radio receiver/transmitter.

While their classmates are watching TV or listening to a CD, the Henshaws might be talking to a ham radio enthusiast in Japan or Portugal or Germany.

This technology, which Calvin and Debbie invested in at first simply to allow family members to stay in touch when they were miles apart, actually has brought them closer together even while theyre all in the same room.

Dad and I had always kind of talked about doing (ham radio), said 16-year-old Nike, the Henshaws eldest daughter. You get to meet new people, and talk to people all over the world.

Calvin beams as only a parent can when he recalls that both Nike and her brother, Bobby, 14, were still in the 7th grade when they passed the test to earn the license that allows them to talk on certain ham radio frequencies.

I was pretty proud of them, Calvin said.

The Henshaws youngest, Jillian, 12, is a ham enthusiast, too, but she doesnt yet have her license.

Calvin said his first ham radio was a mobile unit (or rig, to use enthusiasts term for a radio).

Calvin, who is a National Guardsman, said he bought the radio so he could talk to his family while he was training at Gowen Field near Boise.

Ham radios, both the mobile rigs the Henshaws have in their cars, and their handheld units, have replaced the cell phone the family used to have.

Staying in touch isnt quite the same as it used to be, of course.

In addition to requiring a license to talk on ham radio frequencies, the Federal Communications Commission prohibits enthusiasts from conducting business over the airwaves, Calvin said.

(Thankfully, though, the FCC has rescinded its capricious ban on ordering pizzas using the phone patch feature most ham radio clubs maintain, he said.)

But then, ham radio users dont have to wonder whether theyve used up all their free cell minutes.

Youre not feeling like youre costing money every time you push the button, Calvin said.

At first, the Henshaws were so enamored with ham radio that they would push the talk button for the most mundane of reasons.

When we first started it was almost daily use, Calvin said. Id call to say Im on my home for lunch, Id call to say Im back at work.

Nike said she has used the familys radios to talk to her classmate, Seth Davis.

She said Davis, who lives outside Baker City, often rides his bicycle home after school during the warmer months, and sometimes carries a handheld radio.

He would tell me what he was seeing as he rode, Nike said.

Since the Henshaws started using ham radios a few years ago, theyve discovered myriad other ways to pursue the hobby.

The family belongs to EARS Eastern Oregon Amateur Radio Society. Calvin is vice president of the organization, which has about 65 members, most of whom live in Baker County, Debbie said.

She especially enjoys helping the club provide radio support for local events, such as Cycle Oregon a few years ago.

The main thing I got into this for was communicating with my family, but I also like participating in community events, Debbie said.

EARS also maintains a series of signal repeaters on hilltops around Baker City, Calvin said.

The repeaters allow ham radio users to talk to each other with handheld units from almost anywhere in Baker County and even into parts of Western Idaho.

But even though its useful for communicating across relatively short distances, ham radio is perhaps best known for its ability to connect people thousands of miles apart.

Calvin still remembers the first overseas contact he made.

It was with someone in Japan, he said. That was really exciting.

Nike has logged contacts from Mexico and Japan, as well.

The Henshaws participate in contests in which EARS competes against other ham radio clubs to make as many contacts, in as many states and countries as possible, during one 24-hour period.

Thats 24 hours straight no naps allowed.

But the Henshaws enjoy the casual as well as the competitive aspects of their hobby.

Calvin said he has spent many an hour in front of his radio without saying a word.

Basically you just spin the dial until you find something that sounds interesting, he said. I do a lot of listening.

In fact, listen is all some enthusiasts ever do.

Most stores and catalogs that peddle ham radios sell rigs that receive signals, but dont transmit, Calvin said. And you dont need a license to listen.

Of course, once youve spoken to someone in Brazil from your own bedroom, lacking that license to communicate might be too much to bear.

You can always reach somebody on a ham radio, Debbie said.

How to get started

Sampling ham radio doesnt require a massive investment.

Mobile or handheld rigs range from about $100 to $300; however, with their relatively small antennas you wont be able to talk to foreign countries with one.

Base radios start at around $500, and figure on at least $200 more for a quality antenna, Calvin said.

Dipole antennas are essentially long strands of wire arrayed in a T shape, he said.

Beam antennas are movable, and can be pointed at signal repeaters to improve range and clarity.

The other main investment is time.

Theres a lot of technical stuff to ham radio, Debbie said, and youll need to know some of that stuff to pass the test for even the most basic license.

(There are three licensing levels, called classes the higher the level, the more frequencies the licenseholder can legally talk on.)

EARS usually sponsors a ham radio study course once a year, but you can start any time, Debbie said.

The club recently acquired a series of ham radio videos, and there are dozens of informative sites on the Internet.

(A good one is eham.net.)

We can get them started, or they can do it totally on their own, Debbie said. Most of (the club members have tapes we can loan.

There are study books designed for children, as well, she said.

You can get more information by calling the Henshaws at 523-2876.