My friend Mary Beth Pigg is studying to take the test to get a ham radio license.
Readers who have been following my column for a while might recall that I’ve written about hams before and was taken to task a few years back for favoring my husband, who is a ham radio operator, and his friends who use amateur radio for all kinds of good deeds.
The complainer was right. I love reporting on the hams, and anyone who made the connection to my reports on Mary Beth becoming a ham to my husband and his friends would be right also.
In his enthusiasm for amateur radio — especially the history of local hams providing communications during emergencies — Bob talked members of the Pacific Police Explorers Club into taking the class offered by the Eureka Fire Protection District in preparation to take the test to become hams.
Mary Beth, now 16, is one of the Explorers, but community service is not new to her. She’s been lending a helping hand ever since she was big enough to carry empty trays to the dish washers in an after-funeral luncheon.
Ham radio — with its esoteric combination of frequencies, bands, transverters, light emitting diodes, call signs and ham protocol — is a fraternity of radio operators that goes back to the days of Marconi.
As soon as the little Italian demonstrated that you could send and retrieve radio signals through the air, amateurs have been out there plying the airwaves. So many people — amateurs and commercial broadcasters — started jamming the radio frequencies that a government agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), was set up to regulate who could operate where.
The hams have a tiny portion of the radio spectrum assigned to them and they stay on their air — day in and day out — to demonstrate that the amateur frequencies are not idle.
All you have to do to become one of these amateur radio talkers is to pass a 35-question test of your understanding of the service, equipment, electricity and the radio elements.
Mary Beth said she is not put off by it. On her first night in the class she saw familiar things. She put together the elements to make a lightbulb light up in the classroom when she was in fifth grade.
“It’s just electricity,” she said. “I just followed the design.”
So it’s no problem for her to convert radio frequency to wave length in meters, a tricky equation that some people prefer to memorize rather than apply.
Mary Beth is a whiz, I think, because she’s not afraid to reach out. She’s not afraid to try. I remember when she was about 10 and I wanted a picture of pony rides high on a hill in the city park. I asked her to take my digital camera, run up the hill while one especially photogenic toddler was still on the pony, and take some pictures for me. I gave her a few instructions on framing.
“I get it,” she said. “It’s what you see in the focus window.” She took my camera, ran up the hill and took half a dozen shots that turned out to be pretty good.
When she was about that same age and she was at the senior center volunteering during a fundraiser with a group of girls her age someone threw a bucket of apples into a tub of water, told the girls to bob for apples and asked patrons to pay $1 for every apple one of the girls picked out of the water.
Mary Beth laughed, her soft, shy laugh, plunged her face into the tub and came up with an apple. The other girls tried one after the other and came up empty.
“I really had fun that day,” Mary Beth said. “I bobbed for apples for two hours and made a lot of money for the senior center.”
I’ve seen her serving hamburgers for the Dan Donnelly Backpackers and tallying the votes in the Eagles barbecue cook-off.
“I also got to run the plates from the cookers to the judges,” she said “That’s my thing, I’d rather be moving around.”
She is just the kid whoyou want at your side when you need an extra pair of hands. As she becomes a young adult, I see her expanding her activities that involve helping other people.
She’s a member of the Police Explorers Now, a group of kids who study police protocols. She got to ride along with an officer on three different occasions where she learned how grownups interact in tense circumstances. She was not allowed to get out of the car, and could only watch as a female officer approached a man who was acting out and scaring people around him.
“She (the officer) didn’t yell or anything,” Mary Beth said. “She talked in a low voice and tried to get him to calm down. And finally she did. She calmed him down and didn’t have to arrest him.
“I really learned something,” Mary Beth said. “When someone is very excited, don’t get excited yourself, it’s better to try to calm them down.”
When she was directing traffic during Spookfest – in her electric green Police Explorers’ T-shirt — I asked her if I could sneak through the line to take a picture. She thought about if for several seconds before she nodded and stepped into the line to make a space for me. “It’s the newspaper,” she told the people she stepped in front of.
This week she and I talked about the hams in Colorado, who provided communication for firefighters on the fire line. There were 11 fires at the same time, with hams working at every fire, putting up antennas and transmitting messages. One ham, alone, set up his radio station and had 48 volunteer hams who worked in eight-hour shifts for 11 days to keep the lines of communication open.
Mary Beth and I have talked hundreds of times in her young lifetime, but she had never been asked to do a real newspaper interview before.
She was nervous at first and quiet. She’s normally quiet, the middle child in a family of athletes, with parents who might be called overachievers in the area of community service. They would never be called quiet. I didn’t want to give her the answers because she’s so wonderfully natural and unaffected.
“So now you’re studying to be a ham, what do you think about the hams working with the firefighters in the Colorado wildfires?” I asked her. “Is that something you’d volunteer for.”
She was slow to answer, as though she was afraid she might disappoint me. After a time, she lifted her chin in an uncharacteristic thrust and nodded.
“I can tell you one thing,” she said. “I read about it on the Internet, about how the hams were helping, and I can tell you, I would’ve never even thought about volunteering for anything like that if I didn’t know about ham radio.
“Now,” she said. “I think it’s a good way to help people. It would really be cool.”
I agreed with her, it would be cool.
Bob’s been trying to get me to take the test and become a ham for 20 years. I could never see myself saying “CQ, CQ,” into a hand-held mike, waiting for someone to talk to. But, like Mary Beth, I could see myself relaying messages for first responders during an emergency.
“OK,” I told him, “if you can talk Mary Beth and the Explorers into enrolling in the class to take the test, I’ll do it too.”
So here we are, the day before the big test, having studied the theory and application of a 300-question pool and expected to remember enough to get 26 out of 35 questions right. “It’s a humbling experience,” I told Randy Gable, Eureka Fire District deputy chief.
“I bet,” he nodded.
“What do you think about the test?” I asked Mary Beth.
“I think I’m ready,” she said. “It’s cool.”
Pauline Masson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-805-9800.