Category Archives: Ham Radio

February 2022: Ham ‘n’ POTAtoes

One of the many things I love about my dear, sweet, intelligent, thoughtful, and supportive (in cases she’s reading this) wife is that she has a seemingly inexhaustible tolerance for my charming eccentricities and petty foibles. So, for example, when I decided to ride my motorcycle out to a conference in California, and then ride back from Santa Monica to Jacksonville Beach in a day and a half, for no reason other than to establish my credentials in a group of like-minded weirdos, she did not actually divorce me, make me sleep on the couch, or excise any of my body parts.

What brought on this sudden flurry of heartfelt appreciation is that I’ve done something less dangerous but equally, um, “eccentric.” Specifically, this: I enjoy amateur radio. The stereotype of a ham radio hobbyist is pretty much accurate: nerdy, obsessed with radios and amplifiers and antennas and all sorts of stuff that is mysterious to normal people, engrossed in technical details of radio wave propagation, and prone to spending countless hours in dark rooms staring at dimly illuminated equipment to ends that would seem utterly pointless to any sensible person. But that’s me, and I like it. So, when I’m not traveling with the aforementioned spouse, I set up a portable ham radio station in the RV:

Hold that thought…

One thing that hams do, like most hobbyists, is attend “conventions” where there are seminars on various radio topics, dealers selling the latest equipment, and thousands of hams selling off their used stuff. The biggest one is the Dayton (Ohio) “Hamvention,” which in 2019 drew nearly 35,000 hams. I’m writing this from the Orlando “Hamcation,” which is smaller at 20,000, but which provides on-site RV parking. Due to that option, my RV amateur radio club held a gathering at Hamcation with 16 motor homes congregating from as far away as Colorado.

Hold that thought…

Yet another thing I like to do with ham radio is called “Parks on the Air” (or POTA). The idea is that one travels to a state or federal park, sets up the radio, jury-rigs some kind of an antenna (such as by throwing some wires up into the trees), and then makes contact with amateur radio guys all over the country. So, for example, I set up at Crooked River State Park right on the coast near the Georgia/Florida border, cranked up my radio, and made 151 contacts with operators distributed around the country:

Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for: the point of all this. Since (1) I do ham radio stuff, and (2) I was traveling to Hamcation anyway, and (3) since there are dozens of parks on the route to and fro where I could do POTA activations, I decided to combine all three into an extended circumnavigation of the state, combining all three activities into one trip:

The drive didn’t quite work out like I planned, but even with some minor glitches along the way, traveling from park to park provided some memorable experiences. I visited 5 state parks (actual parks, like with campgrounds and picnic areas), 3 state historic areas (including the Jefferson Davis Historic Site, which somehow has survived current cancel culture, with even the statue of Jefferson Davis still intact), one federal National Wildlife Refuge, and one “eco-lodge” (which is some kind of facility where they send young, impressionable students to be instructed on various ecology topics).

Just one example of a glitch. I didn’t bring enough clothes. Fortunately, though, I learned an important fact from a friend: dirty laundry has to ability to self-regenerate. That is, if you put your dirty clothes in a hamper, in a few days they have self-cleaned enough that they can be worn again. Really. It’s true. Google it. By virtue of this miracle of modern textiles, I was able to go for 12 days with only 4 days of clothes.

Another glitch. One stop was at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site. The story of this plantation is fascinating. Before the civil war, the economy of the coastal south, from Georgia up through North Carolina, was based on rice, not cotton. The rice plantations, however, had to be located in what were insufferable, mosquito-infested, malaria-producing swamps. So the plantation owners would high-tail it out of those areas from April through October, leaving the slaves as the only occupants of the plantations. As a result of this extended time to themselves, the slaves developed their own culture, which was a combination of African memories and Christianity (mixed with voodoo) (seriously), even developing their own language (Geechee-Gullah), which was a mix of African dialects and English. Incredibly, that culture survived well into the 20th century, and continues to exist in pockets even today. What was the glitch? I took a tour of the plantation to learn more about this incredible bit of American history, but the tour turned out to be focused on the plantation owners’ furniture, artwork, and household accessories, including (no kidding) little lacy things that looked a lot to me like doilies. Doilies? Seriously? In the midst of this story, people want to look at doilies? Actually, yes … most people on the tour did in fact want to learn more about the home and its contents, so I waited until the tour was wrapping up, thanked the guide, and headed on to the next park. Not a totally worthless stop, but definitely a glitch.

All things considered, it was a great trip. Definitely too long away from home, maybe a bit much on the one-night stands along the route (not those kind) [Kids — If you don’t know what that means, ask your parents], unfortunate unseasonably cold weather (like 20 degrees below normal), and maybe not the most efficient routing (for example, too much backtracking). But the trip still had its moments. Georgia has done a wonderful job with its state parks and traveling around, seeing the parks, and having the fun of talking on the radio along the way, and combining that with a gathering of like-minded (mostly nerdy, but who’s counting) folks means the trip was well worth it.

May 2018: Strange but true…

We’re getting ready to leave on our next big trip out west (more on that below), but first a solo trip to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, for a shake-down cruise and a meeting of my amateur radio club. So, in the natural order of things, that’s what this post would be about. But the fickle finger of fate, combined with irresistible force of divine providence (or something like that), had other plans. So here goes…

The campground here (Mayberry Campground) (because it’s near Mt. Airy, which was the model for the town of Mayberry in the old Andy Griffith show) (which is a story in itself, but one I can’t mess with right now) sits on the historic property of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins, and is run by descendants of the Bunkers.

The story of the Bunkers is so improbable that, if it weren’t true, one would brush it off as a ridiculous fairy tale.

Chang and Eng, from a watercolor done in 1836.

Chang and Eng were born in May 1811 in Thailand (then known as Siam). Now known as “conjoined” twins, they were joined at the sternum and shared a common liver, although they were otherwise complete. Conjoined twins occur when, in the early stages of development, an embryo that would otherwise separate to form twins only partially separates. Conjoined twins are rare, occurring in about one out of every 200,000 live births. Surgical teams are increasingly capable of separating many such pairs, but in the era of Chang and Eng, separation would have resulted in certain death for both.

For a while, Chang and Eng were under contract to a company that paraded them around the United States as a curiosity, but after that contract expired they settled in North Carolina where they bought a farm. [NOTE to all readers under the age of 30. Because this story occurs in the early 19th century, Chang and Eng operated their farm using slaves. For you, that makes them morally repulsive and unworthy of anyone knowing anything about them. Accordingly, to protect your fragile psyches, you are encouraged to stop reading now.] North Carolina was a slave state but under U.S. law, the twins counted as white. [Young people: don’t ever go to North Carolina.] They sought and were granted U.S. citizenship, but when they got to the naturalization office and were told that U.S. law required them to have a surname, so they adopted the name ‘Bunker’ from the man standing behind them in line.

In 1843, Chang and Eng married two local sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates. Originally, the two couples lived in a single home, sleeping in a bed made for four (strange-but-true fact #1) (imagine sleeping like that) (as one example, how did they roll over?), but after a period of time the two sisters began to dislike each other (#2). So, the two couples arranged to live in two separate homes, with Chang and Eng alternating between the two homes (#3), thereby allowing the sisters to minimize their contact with each other.

Over the course of the following years, Chang and Adelaide had eleven children and Eng and Sarah had ten (#4) (the strange aspect of the fathering-children-thing is self-evident). Chang’s son Christopher and Eng’s son Stephen both served in the Confederate army, where they were wounded and captured by Union troops. [Young people: I told you to stop reading; don’t blame me if you just learned that there was a civil war.] As a result of the war the two brothers lost almost everything. In 1870, as they were returning from a tour of Europe and Russia, Chang suffered a stroke down the side closest to his brother. Eng nursed him as best he could, carrying around Chang’s now useless leg in a sling as his ailing brother leaned on a crutch. Shortly thereafter, Chang began drinking heavily (which did not affect Eng, because the two brothers did not share a circulatory system) (#5) (imagine being joined at the chest to a tipsy brother) and in 1874 Chang died while the brothers were asleep. Eng awoke to find his brother dead, exclaimed “Then I am going!” (#6) and died a few hours later (#7) (imagine being joined to a corpse, and having to wait a few hours for the inevitable). And if all of that isn’t enough, the Bunkers’ shared liver was removed and can be seen in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum to this day (#8).

Chang and Eng in their later years.

The Bunker dynasty, however, lives on. There are more than 1500 descendants of the Bunkers, many of whom live in the Mt. Airy area, and several of whom are prominent in their fields. United States Air Force Major General Caleb V. Haynes was a grandson of Chang Bunker through his daughter Margaret Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bunker. Alex Sink, former Chief Financial Officer of Florida, is a great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker and was the Democratic nominee in the 2010 Florida gubernatorial election. Eng’s grandson through his daughter Rosella, George F. Ashby, was President of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1940s. Composer Caroline Shaw is a great-great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013.

My radio club was treated to a tour of the white farmhouse on the campground property built by Eng’s son, William Bunker, in 1900.  The campground owner, Benny East, is the great-great grandson of Eng.  His mother, Ruby Bunker East, was born and raised in the farmhouse along with her 5 sisters.  Benny’s daughters, Kali and Lakin East can also be found working at the campground and are great-great-great granddaughters of Eng.

Now … back to the actual point of this post.

How did the shakedown cruise go? Fine.

What about the upcoming trip? Here it is:

2018 Summer Tour. Stops 15-18 indicate places we’ll be camping with Robert, Laura, and the three boys.

That’s it for now. Further details on the upcoming trip will follow.

8-11 February 2017: Hamcation

One of my hobbies is amateur radio (call sign K4EAK). I have a nice little setup in the house in LaGrange, from where I’ve spoken to people in all 50 states and several hundred different countries. I even once spoke to guys in Europe by using special equipment to bounce a radio signal off the moon! Our local club assists first responders with communications during severe weather outages, as well as doing other public service tasks. I have a pretty good mobile setup in the truck, and from time to time I even play on the radio while we travel around in ACE. There’s an amateur radio chapter in our motorhome association, and a few times we’ve met up with them in various locations, like this trip back in 2014. All of this is pretty geeky, and most people would (rightly) assume that ham radio guys are mostly nerdish dweebs, who generally keep their noses stuck in various electronical gizmos,  and who for the most part have only marginal interpersonal skills. Think of Big Bang Theory come to life.

If you’ve gotten this far, this part of our Florida trip involved a descent into the deepest, darkest possible recesses of nerdism: the second-largest “hamfest” in the world, a place where thousands (literally) of hams congregate to buy and sell new and used equipment, attend seminars on various communications topics, and “socialize” (using a generous definition of the term).

A panorama view of Central Florida Fairgrounds (Orlando), where hundreds of RVs and thousands of ham radio guys have congregated for the 2017 “Hamcation.”



The “swap meet” (the indoor version, but there’s also an outdoor “tailgate” version with hundreds of sellers) and the vendor area (where dealers and manufacturers peddle their latest wares).

And since a couple dozen members of the motorhome club were in attendance, we also set up one night for a potluck supper:

About 36 members and guests from the “Family Motor Coach Association” Amateur Radio Chapter set up between a couple rows of member’s motorhomes.

I know what you’re thinking: what was poor Wendy doing during all of this, seeing as how she has a mostly normal personality and finds my ham radio activities about as dull as a fence post? My answer is, who cares? No, I’m kidding. That was a joke. I’m actually very grateful that she puts up with these little eccentricities of mine with little (well, mostly little) objection. She did spend one day visiting our son-in-law’s parents down in Lakeland, where she was able to do the Frank Lloyd Wright tour at Florida Central College, a college that has been described as the most beautiful campus in the United States. As the tour website puts it, “The story of how a Methodist college with no endowment – during the Great Depression and World War II – was able to not only convince one of the most sought after architects of the time to draw plans for their school, but was also able to afford to build them, is a wonderfully entertaining story.”

And we both enjoyed the evening get-togethers of the ham radio club. For all of the nerd-jokes that attend an event such as this, the people are actually friendly, welcoming, and interesting. Next stop: Fort Wilderness and Walt Disney World! Woo hoo!


21-23 March 2014: FMCA Amateur Radio Club

Right after the FMCA convention, we headed across the street to the Fair Harbor RV Park for a gathering of the FMCA Amateur Radio Club. What a great time! Fun people, interesting conversation, and a lot of time to talk about how to operate portable from the MH.

My radio setup consisted of an IC-718 (temporarily, pending moving my IC-706MkII-G out of the truck), an LDG AT100-Pro autotuner, and a Samlex 35 amp power supply, all of which was mounted in a custom box that also serves as my portable setup, such as on Field Day.
20130321 IMG_0924 (Custom)
The setup fits quite nicely in the fold-out desk on the passenger side (my computer goes in front of the box) and I simply run the coax out through the window and to the antenna. This works just fine and, with headphones, I don’t disturb the XYL.

I’ve been thinking that using a simple hamstick dipole (or maybe a BuddiPole) is the way to go … acceptable performance, no worry about insolvable RF ground problems, and easy enough setup and takedown. I have a 15′ expandable painter’s pole with the hamstick adapter mounted at the top. So, all I would have to do is screw in the hamsticks, attach the coax, and mount the painter’s pole in the flag pole mount already attached to the MH ladder.

IMG_0860 (Custom)

I operated that way on 20m for a few hours and got about a dozen contacts, including W1AW-New Mexico (!). 40m didn’t seem to work as well (barely made contact with the RV Service Net), but that may have been an imbalance in the two sides of the antenna. Further investigation to follow. After talking to folks here who know a lot more than I do, I’m convinced that is indeed my best option, at least for a while.

All things considered, I’m OK.

Overall statistics for the combined FMCA Convention/ARC trip:
283 miles
Fair Harbor RV Park cost: $44 x 2 nights
Fuel costs: $167.34
Average mileage: 6.72 mpg (only towed 1/2-way due to problem with transmission pump)