Don Miles: Surfing the Radio Waves

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By JEFF PICKELL

A man in Kansas expresses his worries about the rise of Christian fundamentalism in America. A man in Indiana replies that he doesn’t understand the concept of Christian fundamentalism. Shouldn’t all Christians follow the fundamentals of Christ? he asks.

Morenci resident Don Miles nudges a dial.

A woman in West Virginia tells a man in the Upper Peninsula that she hasn’t seen “Lost” yet, but she’s a big fan of “Grey’s Anatomy.” The man strongly encourages her to watch “Lost.”

Miles nudges the dial again. Two women, chatting about who-knows-what, from who-knows-where, trade messages in Morse Code.
hamguy Depending on the atmospheric conditions, and a variety of other factors, the five or six boxes on Miles’ kitchen table are sophisticated enough to put him in contact with the other side of the world.

Miles is an amateur, or ham, radio operator, and has been since he was about 14.

As a hobby, ham has been around as long as radio itself. Many inventors have been credited with devising the first wireless communications device—Heinrich Hertz, Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla, to name a few—so it’s hard to determine exactly where the phenomenon started. What is known, however, is that by the turn of the 20th century, these first few innovators were sending Morse transmissions back and forth to one another.

From there, the radio fad caught on. Big time. By 1912, so many Americans had hopped on the bandwagon that Congress had to pass an act establishing professional and recreational frequencies. In 1979, the World Administrative Radio Conference met in Geneva, Switzerland, to lay out international guidelines.

Worldwide, there are more than 3 million hams, as the operators are called. So, what exactly are all of these hams doing with their radios, and how?

“I always tell everyone,’what do you want it to be?’” said Miles.

He says the reason ham is such an appealing hobby is that it is versatile—it appeals to tech wizards, astronomy buffs, antique buyers, competitors, collectors and people who just like to chit chat—rag-chewers as they’re called in ham lingo.

A basic trait all hams share is the urge to reach out for a connection, he says.

Miles’ favorite activity is called chasing DX—trying to make contacts in as many different parts of the world, and as far away, as possible. Miles has communicated with hams from Russia, China, Africa, even New Zealand, and he didn’t even have to become multilingual.

To get past the language barriers, international hams have devised a universal code which allow for the exchange of basic information no matter what tongue they speak. The system is comprised of three letter “Q-signals” which allow for a basic exchange of information.

Still, some users aren’t quite able to wrap their mouths around the English-based signals. For them, a special system of Morse Code has been devised.

“So, I can sit in my trailer in the campground at 1 a.m. and talk to Russians in the summer,” said Miles.

To confirm that a conversation actually took place, hams often exchange QSL cards, personalized postcards that contain users’ call signs, locations, and whatever other information they want to include.

For instance, some QSL cards include pictures of hams posing with pets, pictures of their radios, personal logos, even the logos of the radio clubs with which they are associated.

Miles has a stack of more than a hundred QSL cards—some from as close as neighboring Lenawee and Fulton County communities, some from as far as Brazil.

Part of the fun of DX chasing, Miles said, is it shows just how good a ham has become at manipulating and understanding the radio waves, shows just how far he or she can reach. And it takes a lot of studying and practice to reach the farthest ends of the Earth.

In order to get a call sign, users have to qualify for a license from the Federal Communications Commission. But it doesn’t end there. There are a series of licenses to obtain, and with each one, the user is granted access to new frequencies and the privilege to transmit at a higher power.

It took Miles about 30 hours of study to earn his current license, which put him on the second highest operating level allowed inside the United States.

Miles has come a long way since he started dabbling in ham as a teenager. He and his father started toying with CBs in the 1970s, then moved on to ham when Miles was about 13. He regrets not earning his first license until he was 22, after he was decommissioned from his service in the Air Force. He was stationed in California.

“It would’ve made it a lot easier to talk back and forth with my family,” he said.

Unlike other modes of long range communication, such as the internet, land lines, and cellular phones, ham users aren’t anchored to a land-based infrastructure. When conventional methods of communication collapsed during the 9/11 attacks, the 2003 North America blackout and Hurricane Katrina, hams stepped in to help relay important information to local, state and federal authorities.

The diligence of hams on 9/11 even prompted FEMA to reëngineer its disaster-response system to take better advantage of the operational versatility the radios offer.

“I’m not tied down to anything,” said Miles. “I can operate this out of my car. There are people who use battery power to operate. You can even run them off generators.”

Miles would like to see more people, especially young people, get into ham radio. As computers and the internet grow more and more ever-present and sophisticated, he fears that kids will be less apt to explore the hobby.

However, surfing the net and hamming aren’t mutually exclusive. On the contrary, finding novel methods of integrating the two is one of the burgeoning aspects of the hobby.

The trick, says Miles, is communicating with the kids; youngsters have occasional trouble receiving signals from adults. 

 
 

Lots of reasons to love it

 One thing Morenci resident Don Miles likes so much about his ham radio hobby is there are so many ways to enjoy it.Adrian resident Virginia Schutte, president of the of the Adrian Amateur Radio Club, agrees. She says that, of the club’s 65 active members, no two share the exact same interest in ham radio.

For instance, Schutte is a self-confessed rag-chewer—ham lingo for those who like to chit chat over the airwaves.

Other hams enjoy participating in the periodic state and nationwide competitions various organizations offer, in which competitors try to make as many contacts in a given area within a set amount of time.

“You’d be surprised how gung-ho some people get about it,” she said.

Still other hams are into the hobby because they enjoy hunting down old, discarded equipment and restoring it to working condition. Some even like building their own equipment from scratch. Miles recently built a Morse Code transmitter from a tuna can.

Ham has also attracted many amateur meteorologists who enjoy collecting weather reports from their friends around the country.

There are also the DX chasers—hams who try to make contacts in as many parts of the world as possible. And tech junkies who specialize in adapting their radios to work alongside their computers. Some people even hook their radios up to their motorcycles.

As times change, ham seems to change right along with it, which may just be why the hobby has stuck around for so long.

 What's a ham, anyway?

One thing Morenci resident Don Miles likes so much about his ham radio hobby is there are so many ways to enjoy it.

Adrian resident Virginia Schutte, president of the of the Adrian Amateur Radio Club, agrees. She says that, of the club’s 65 active members, no two share the exact same interest in ham radio.

For instance, Schutte is a self-confessed rag-chewer—ham lingo for those who like to chit chat over the airwaves.

Other hams enjoy participating in the periodic state and nationwide competitions various organizations offer, in which competitors try to make as many contacts in a given area within a set amount of time.

“You’d be surprised how gung-ho some people get about it,” she said.

Still other hams are into the hobby because they enjoy hunting down old, discarded equipment and restoring it to working condition. Some even like building their own equipment from scratch. Miles recently built a Morse Code transmitter from a tuna can.

Ham has also attracted many amateur meteorologists who enjoy collecting weather reports from their friends around the country.

There are also the DX chasers—hams who try to make contacts in as many parts of the world as possible. And tech junkies who specialize in adapting their radios to work alongside their computers. Some people even hook their radios up to their motorcycles.

As times change, ham seems to change right along with it, which may just be why the hobby has stuck around for so long. 

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