ELLICOTT • On the windswept prairie east of Colorado Springs, in a ramshackle trailer plastered with maps and codes associated with every sector of the world, strange sounds are coming from a radio.
Static mixes with R2-D2-like beeps and bops. Don DuBon has a microphone in one hand while the other twirls a dial, searching.
“Alpha, foxtrot, zero, sierra,” he says, speaking into the void. “Alpha, foxtrot, zero, sierra...”
That’s the call sign for the Pikes Peak Radio Amateur Association, the group of enthusiasts who make this trailer their base.
Hams, as they’re also called, take special pride in their contact with each other across the globe. They keep log sheets. One here by DuBon shows contact made with a Chuck (call sign KI6HK) in California; a Jake (K4BOM) in England; a Brooks (K2CNN) in Alabama; and others in Uruguay, Brazil and New York.
DuBon, N6JRL, is looking for others.
“Spain,” he says, recognizing the call sign heard through the clutter. “That’s a station in Spain. ... He’s got a bunch of people calling him.”
“It’s called a pile-up,” says Jim Bishop, KD0KQL, fellow club member and retiree. The two are now gray but engaged in something that makes them feel young, still boys with their radios.
The Pikes Peak Radio Amateur Association (PPRAA), counting a little more than 100 members mostly from generations past, is among an underground but bustling faction of American culture. Active call signs given by the Federal Communications Commission represent 0.25% of the U.S. population. In El Paso County, the ranks number about 3,500.
“For a lot of folks, that’s the only way we know each other, is through our call signs,” says John Bloodgood, KD0SFY, active with local, regional and national groups.
“Or with our voices,” adds Bishop.
Yes, they’ll give each other keen looks at regular meet-ups — a look saying, “I know you from somewhere,” and that somewhere is the airwaves.
The biggest get-together every summer is Field Day. This is the annual fest by the American Radio Relay League, where hams in the U.S. and Canada convene with their clubs and rack up as many contacts as they can day and night.
For last summer’s Field Day here at the PPRAA base, people made calls for 48 hours straight, napping in tents, eating brisket and omelets from the grill.
But COVID-19 has changed things. There was no Field Day meeting last month. Hams stayed put, calling from their home “shacks.” Conventions everywhere have been canceled.
And yet, some things haven’t changed.
“We’re socially distant types anyway,” Bloodgood says.
In some ways, the attention to the hobby has been the only change, he says. “There was a surge in interest, because now people have been stuck at home, and this is a great way to stay in touch.”
The pandemic has underscored the ways in which social media connects us — or perhaps disconnects us. So it’s been for ham radio, though these virtual citizens maintain theirs is a domain of pure connection.
Here, brain-scrambling memes do not infiltrate, nor do selfies or any self-gratifying image threatening to other self-esteems. There are no sensational headlines here, no companies trying sell anything (against FCC law). There’s an unwritten rule: no talk of religion or politics.
“Sometimes you can get into what they call ragchew,” DuBon says. One might mention their interest in motorcycles, for example, and find their contact also likes motorcycles. Or maybe the shared interest is dogs or fishing. Or astronomy or gardening. Mostly the talk is technical, about equipment and operating power.
Here’s how the American Radio Relay League promotes the activity:
“Imagine sitting in your room talking to people in distant lands, senators and car mechanics, astronauts and farmers ... Imagine hearing a voice crackle through the air, calling to you. Come, talk. Be a friend.”
The ARRL traces the connection back to 1900, when Reginald Fessenden was credited with transmitting the first voice contact through radio between Maryland stations roughly 1 mile apart. Fessenden was inspired to one-up Alexander Graham Bell and establish communication without wires.
Of course, time has established much greater means of wireless communication. Hams have enhanced their capabilities, incorporating video cameras and digital tracking devices, for instance. But the death of RadioShack and the fact that hams largely depend on each other for supplies is the result of technology changing.
“We can’t compete with this,” DuBon says, holding up his smartphone. “We didn’t have that when I was 14 or 15.”
He turns back to his radio. “But this was magic. And it still is to me. After 56 years, it’s still magic.”
It’s still seen as vital, a way to communicate where the internet fails. Official weather stations count on the eyes of hams. Hams are there in times of fires and floods. They’re used for various events, including mountainous races here in the Pikes Peak region.
There’s an appeal to lend a hand in emergencies, and there’s a draw to compete. DX-peditions, they call them — far-flung journeys to places where little to no radio contact has been made.
From his boyhood bedroom in the 1960s, DuBon in 2006 took his passion to a remote pocket of Antarctica; more people had walked in outer space than here. He set up a station and logged thousands of eager callers every hour in what has been considered one of the greatest ham accomplishments in decades.
Others have more modest goals from their shacks. Bishop says he might spend four hours a day on the radio, continuing his mission to make contact with every designated grid in the U.S. (488).
Recently he reached someone in the capital city of the Yukon and felt familiar, child-like joy. “Yeah, I ran around the table,” he says.
Over the radio, hams say, the world has a way of shrinking. “I’ve got friends all over the place,” DuBon says. “I can go to just about any country, just about anywhere I go, I know somebody.”
Now, here from the trailer, somebody breaks the static. Somebody reporting from Wisconsin. Call sign KC1KHH. And then somebody else comes through. N4ZY.
“Hello there,” DuBon says. “My name is Don. That’s delta, oscar, nancy. We’re in Colorado Springs.”
“Well I’m here in Kentucky,” the newcomer says, “but my daughter lives in Colorado Springs.”
A small world indeed. And simple.
DuBon jots a few notes and smiles. “We got it in the log,” he says in closing. “You gentlemen have a great afternoon.”