How I got into ham radio

CERT in 2006

In 2006 I took a CERT class in Hillsboro, Oregon, where our family was living at the time. CERT stands for “Community Emergency Response Team,” and it’s a FEMA program that trains community members in ways of handling various disasters that could impact their specific community. In Hillsboro, our greatest threats were an earthquake, a plane crash at our small airport, or a terrorist attack of some kind on Intel, our largest tech company, where many volatile chemicals were housed.

Several times during the training, the virtues of ham radio were extolled, and I loved the idea of a hobby that let me talk to people around the world, or let me talk to local folks during a blackout or other disruption of normal communication. Back then, in 2006, you still needed to pass a small morse code test to get your ticket. I had a hard time finding an “Elmer” (someone to help mentor you). Internet resources, at the time, were lacking (to say the least).

I ended up going to a local radio club meeting, where an ancient man (in an equally-ancient red flannel shirt) silently looked me up and down, then reached over to a book bag, and pulled out a workbook and a cassette tape. He said, “Here. Read this book. Take the self-tests in the back. Learn the morse code on this tape. Then come back and take the test.” That was it. I’d thought there would be, more, you know, explaining of things. Nope.

I took the tape home, listened to it a couple of times, flipped through the ARRL manual, and realized that ham radio was obviously for people who had passed all their math and physics classes with flying colors, and had been fiddling with electronics since they were kids. In other words, I thought ham radio was for guys. I tried to study the book and take the self tests in the back, but it was all greek, even the “beginner” stuff. I tried to ask a few guy friends about it, but their explanations were difficult to understand – they just knew this stuff, they understood watts and amperes and ohms and antennas and circuits, and they had as hard a time trying to explain it to me as a fish would have explaining water. They didn’t even know how they knew it, they’d just learned it – most of them as kids. It was depressing to feel like this was native knowledge that I just didn’t have. I ended up never returning to take the test.


Fast forward a few years, and we’d moved up to Seattle. I began looking for local CERT resources, and lo and behold, discovered a vibrant and active ham radio community. I found a Mike and Key club booklet, and began calling around, looking for classes. I ended up in one close to home, which was great, although when the teacher began talking, I was still as lost as ever. Many concepts weren’t explained, it was assumed that we’d know them. At one point, he asked, “Everyone here who works in the tech industry, please raise your hand.” Out of 20+ people, all but 4 of us raised a hand.

GENERALI was discouraged, but this time I had the internet on my side. I found a great ham radio test practice site, and through their flashcard-like app, was able to pass my Tech test with flying colors. A few weeks later, my Dad came up to visit, and we took another testing session. This time, I got my General ticket, and he passed both his Tech and his General.

My eventual goal is to have a set-up that can reach around the world, but for now I clutch my little Baofeng, and enjoy the daily and weekly local nets. My next step is a better antenna.