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Amateur radio enthusiasts ham it up at Firecracker gathering

SALISBURY — The hundreds of people who flocked to the Salisbury Civic Center on Saturday have one unifying passion: Ham radio.

Despite its name, this was not a celebration of swine songs or bacon-related broadcasting. It was instead the 34th annual Rowan Amateur Radio Society’s Firecracker Hamfest, a time for amateur radio enthusiasts to network, score new gear or take tests for a broadcasting license.

The enthusiasts, called “hams,” earned their title about the turn of the 20th century, said Radio Society President Mark Scott. Then, radio was purely transmissions of Morse code.

Professional transmitters, those working on the railway or for the military, would often snub their noses at those operating the devices as a pastime, said Scott.

“If you were a lousy Morse code operator, people would refer to you as having a ‘ham fist,'” he said. “From there, the term kind of stuck.”

Firecracker Hamfest is held each year the first Saturday after the Fourth of July — the reason for its Firecracker name. Scott said it is one of many similar gatherings held each year across the nation. The largest is in Dayton, Ohio, which brings 25,000 to 30,000 people to the city for the three-day “Hamvention” each May.

Saturday’s Hamfest attracted people of all ages. Nine-year-old Jeremy Brown Jr. came with his father, Jeremy Brown Sr. — both to look at equipment for sale, to network and to practice taking the licensure testing.

The two were introduced to ham radio during an American Radio Relay League-hosted field day, a national contest in which local societies compete to see how many national broadcasters they can contact within a certain window of time.

Jeremy Brown Sr. said attending Hamfest is like witnessing the “Super Bowl of ham operators.” Trees were lined with antennas, and operators were in a flurry of motion as contestants worked to make contact with others.

“It was incredible to watch,” Brown said. “We both got determined we were going to do this thing as daddy and son. We were going to take our test and study together.”

Since field day, the two have been honing their understanding with the help of Youtube videos and listening in on broadcasts.

Jeremy Brown Jr. said he is particularly fond of amateur radio’s ability to connect him with people all over the world.

“I got to use one during field day,” he said. “I got a person from Canada.”

For many in attendance, the concept of making wireless contact with people in other cities, states or nations was the biggest draw to the technological hobby.

Karl Bowman, North Carolina section manager for the American Radio Relay League, said this is what lured himg to become interested in ham radio in 1968.

“I had this vision of being able to communicate around the world,” Bowman said.

Now over 50 years removed from that initial exploration, Bowman said he finds the hobby more fascinating than ever. The concept has grown and evolved with technology, now including digital modalities that are ever widening the breadth of its application in emergency management, traffic communications and other areas.

“Amateur radio is not a declining hobby,” he said. “More people are involved now than ever before.”

Scott agreed.

“The thing that I find fascinating about amateur radio is the breadth of it,” he said. “Some people like the technological aspect of it. … They just like to build stuff, refurbish or restore it. Other people are what we call ‘appliance operators’: they’re more into operating the radio.”

Operating the radio could mean contact with people as far away as India, China or Japan under the right atmospheric conditions.

Scott said the deeper draw for many ham radio enthusiasts is the opportunity to connect, make friends and engage in what they call “rag chewing”: friendly conversation or weekly check-ins.

As for the techies — the people making technological strides in the cellphone and other digital industries, society Vice President Doug Spriggs said: “Everybody is always talking wireless. We’ve been wireless forever — since the 1920s.”

The Rowan Amateur Radio Society meets at 7 p.m. the second Monday of each month at the Rowan County Rescue Squad building. This Monday, it will meet at the Rufty-Holmes picnic pavilion to celebrate the success of Saturday’s Hamfest and enjoy hot dogs.

There is no cost to attend. Membership in the society is $10.

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