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The Journal Gazette

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Ron Steinberg and Judy Caminiti of Chicago look for bargains at the Hamfest & Computer Expo on Saturday at the Coliseum Expo Center. Steinberg is a ham radio operator; his call sign is K9IKZ.

Saturday, November 14, 2015 10:03 pm

Call signs, not names, ID hams

Frank Gray | The Journal Gazette

The thousands of people attending the Hamfest & Computer Expo at Memorial Coliseum this weekend certainly all have names, but practically none of them had any interest in using them.

"There are probably a dozen Jims here," said Jim Boyer, one of the organizers of the huge gathering of ham radio operators in attendance. But there was only one KB9IH – his call letters.

Walking down the aisles past displays of just about anything a ham radio operator might need, most of the attendees had name tags or baseball caps with their call signs on them or shirts that had their call signs printed on the front.

That’s the way it is in ham radio circles, and occasionally one of the attendees would stumble across someone he or she had spoken to over the radio waves by recognizing their call sign.

Michele Raifsnider, who had a table with a scattering of odd parts that some ham radio operators might need, wore a badge with her radio name, KE8ASK. She talks to people all over the world, she says. In fact she’d just made contact with someone in Kuwait.

Raifsnider is new at ham radio. She’d just started at it last March, but her husband has been at it for 50 years, she said.

A lot of the equipment people were selling was cutting edge, the newest technology had to offer, but much of it was as old as some of the people wandering around the Expo Center.

Raifsnider had two ham radios at her table. They were between 50 and 60 years old and had belonged to a ham radio operator from Georgia who had recently died. The radios were pristine, appearing almost new. The former owner hadn’t smoked, so they were spotless.

Raifsnider also had a case of peculiar looking items dating back who knows how far, all new in their boxes. Always save the boxes, she said. They’re sometimes worth a much as the items to be found inside.

A few yards down the aisle, Al Lapekas, from Michigan, was selling ancient radios salvaged after World War II. The old radios still worked. You could talk to people all over the world using them.

"After the war there was so much surplus that was sold to ham radio operators because only they knew what to do with it," Lapekas said. From time to time people with those old radios need parts – a tube here and there – and Lapekas was one of the people they could turn to for parts.

All over the exposition center were tables filled with vacuum tubes and ancient electronic parts, antenna rotators, and odd looking parts that only radio operators would recognized.

Boyer, who is an electronics engineer, said ham radio is changing all the time, and operators are inventing ways to communicate with people. For more than 50 years, though, ham operators have been communicating with people all over the world using Morse code, voice and even sending photographs to each other, years before the fax appeared on the scene.

Though some of the radios that enthusiasts use are bordering on ancient, the ham radio population isn’t shrinking. There are at least 700,000 radio operators in the U.S. alone, Boyer said, and the number is growing. In fact, the Hamfest produced a few more. Enthusiasts wanting to be licensed could be tested at the event, and those who passed got their own new call signs.

fgray@jg.net