PUTTING OUT THE CALL…
Way back in 2003 one of the first posts that I uploaded to my hip new blog, the Patteran Pages (this via the steampunk software adopted by the American news and culture site Salon, who were at that time swiftly clambering onto the digital bandwagon) was an account of my terminally unhip identity as a radio ham. Whether I intended some sort of self-outing as an unrepentant proponent of decidedly analogue communications technology here in the zeitgeist zone of the nascent blog, or I was just stumped for material on the edge of this new and uncharted frontier, I no longer recall. But I was at the time a very active operator, fortunate enough to be running a well-constituted school amateur radio club station and, by the standards of such ventures, we were doing very well. Here’s what I wrote.
I am a radio ham. 40 feet above a shed in the school grounds there revolves an industrial strength aerial made of tubular steel and capable of sending and receiving hundreds of watts-worth of one-to-one conversation. Crouched at a desk beneath it, I have spent long hours conversing earnestly with fellow operators around the world.
As tools of the trade I have an old pre-digital age transceiver built when the abacus was high tech, a pre-Soviet collapse Times World Atlas so large scale it’s got your house on it, & my very own callsign – G0 EUV. With the aid of these accoutrements I can select a radio frequency and, when I have located another similarly inclined (& licensed) hobbyist, I can engage him or her in lively intercourse about the strength of their radio signal, the make and model of our radio equipment and the weather outside. (Sadly, not for us the political affairs of the day, or the blessings and iniquities of religious faith. These subjects are forbidden pretty much worldwide to licensed ham radio). So then, the limits of the contact’s English vocabulary having been reached and with all permitted conversational gambits exhausted, we will bid each other farewell and the two of us will repeat the procedure all over again with someone else. Which process is, even for the enthusiast, about as dull as it sounds.
But constantly, in the gaps between each of these workaday link-ups, the operator is vigilant for the rare fish, the almost imperceptible flicker within the mighty shoal. Because buried within the constant European babble that shoots up and down the invisible conduitss between transceiver and ionosphere there may be heard on occasion, if conditions are just right, the still, small voice of the lone operator in some mightily distant and/or normally inaccessible part of the world. A tiny island in the Indian Ocean; a polar research station; a remote medical or military outpost in the middle of the tundra or the desert; a yacht crossing the equator… Rare DX – the stay-at-home suburban radio ham’s dream..!
I don’t do radio nowadays. The old passion that would have me winding the aerial up its 40’ mast in a force 9 gale so that I could catch the Australians between 05.00 and 07.00 has been necessarily stilled. No more chasing the fluctuating ionospheric conditions to bag a 5-second contact with that lone operator on some lump of rock in the Indian Ocean. No more regular ‘skeds’ with the guy in San Antonio who sounded just like Jack Nicholson; or the Russian doctor in a desolate oil pipeline outpost in Northern Siberia who wanted to learn English; or the Australian fence-mender 50 k. from the nearest shop and bar; or, as once, the panicky weekend sailor whose yacht was shipping water fast off Mauritius on whose behalf I had to phone the Grand Bay coastguard. It was always the romance of contact with the beleaguered or self-exiled individuals in exotic locations, the two of us fighting against fading signals or interference from the hundreds of other stations out there on the same wavelength wanting to touch base with the rare DX station with whom you alone are in contact. Those few minutes of shared alternative culture across thousands of miles of earth and sky are worth all the solitary hours of static crackle and atmospheric hiss.
There aren’t very many poems about people talking into two-way radios. In fact, I’ve never come across any! So for the time being this is it. So whether this poem is a work of quality is hardly the issue. That anyone should want to produce a piece about people talking into a radio microphone should be enough to turn our heads…
iMac 3.2 GHz Intel Core i5
I paddle the keys and pixels break surface
like bubbles. The blue window shivers into a spray
of letters, uniform, a lingua franca. The world and his wife
are talking hard, a promiscuity of speech that melts
into the pool, unvoiced. This is language out of light,
words squeezed and shredded out of shape and form,
electronic runes and glyphs squirted into bits
and bytes down filaments. These digits, these encryptions,
they’re mouthless, lost in space. No tongues or lips
articulate the cries and whispers of the slave electrons
working the binary roads. Behind the brilliant lexicon,
just the insect voices and the hum of spinning disks.
Yaesu FT-847 Multiband Transceiver
Still dark outside. 0500 zulu and a cold wind
rocks the antenna tower. I’m beaming west
on 20 meters, listening through the chuckle
of morse, the whooping spherics. I’m looking
for Australia on the long path, vaulting scraps
of landscape and the great bare, muscled back
of ocean; skidding in across the eastern shores,
magnet-voiced and listening hard. A VK3,
a loner by two hundred miles of fence-line;
a little wooden house, a splinter in the prairie skin.
Just him, his wife and daughters, fixing the broken wire
that separates the cowboys and the kangaroos
from dreamtime. Now the aerial image shimmers,
breaks. I lose his voice as the skywave shifts;
lose his tale of full moons, crowding stars
and voices in the wind. I drift with the tidal ebb
and flow of distant storms, spikes of wireless sound
and silence. But I’ve spoken; he has spoken.
Breath has shaped and joined our words.
We have thrown a line across the earth
and tugged it once or twice.
20 meters – The most commonly used HF radio waveband.
Spherics – Naturally generated electromagnetic atmospheric sound.
Long path – Turning the antenna (see photograph above) so that the received & transmitted signals travel not by ‘line of sight’ but right around the globe & in via ‘the back door’, this done to avoid radio interference from the landmasses in between.
VK3 – An amateiur radio callsign registered in Victoria.
Skywave – The propogated radio wave that refracts through the ionosphere & returns to earth.