2018-06-29 / Front Page

Society breakdown? NERDS to the rescue

Amateur radio group participates in national disaster drill
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Dave Olean, left, and Tom Moyer, work the airwaves while fellow NERDS (New England Radio Discussion Society) member Laurie Cohen supervises, during Amateur Radio Field Day 2018, staged locally June 23 from a base camp behind the New School on York Street in Kennebunk. (Duke Harrington photo) Dave Olean, left, and Tom Moyer, work the airwaves while fellow NERDS (New England Radio Discussion Society) member Laurie Cohen supervises, during Amateur Radio Field Day 2018, staged locally June 23 from a base camp behind the New School on York Street in Kennebunk. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — Quietly and with little fanfare — indeed, it might fairly be said, with virtually no notice at all — a dozen or so local residents participated this past weekend in the largest emergency preparedness drill this country has ever seen.

The event took place on the south yard beside The New School, just off Route 1 in Kennebunk, but even those who happened by could be forgiven for not noticing. After all, there were no sirens, no heavy equipment, no simulated bomb blasts. No, this drill simply involved a group of people, and mostly senior citizens at that, talking.

But the trick is that they were talking to others like themselves from all over the world.


Brian Wood, left, and R. J. Mere, both members of Kennebunk-based NERDS (New England Radio Discussion Society), work the airwaves from a base camp behind the New School on York Street, as part of Amateur Radio Field Day 2018. An annual 24-hour event in which radio clubs around the world practice making contact with each other, Field Day is the largest emergency preparedness drill in the country, staged every year since 1933 and now involving more than 35,000 ham radio operators in the U.S. and Canada. (Duke Harrington photo) Brian Wood, left, and R. J. Mere, both members of Kennebunk-based NERDS (New England Radio Discussion Society), work the airwaves from a base camp behind the New School on York Street, as part of Amateur Radio Field Day 2018. An annual 24-hour event in which radio clubs around the world practice making contact with each other, Field Day is the largest emergency preparedness drill in the country, staged every year since 1933 and now involving more than 35,000 ham radio operators in the U.S. and Canada. (Duke Harrington photo) OK so perhaps in today’s high-tech world, that doesn’t seem like much of a trick at all. But consider, these septuagenarians were not chatting away on smart phones and Skype — they were using a hastily erected antenna and an array of car batteries hooked to a bank of mostly handmade radio receivers networked guerilla-style to everything from modern laptops capable of translating sounds outside the spectrum of human hearing, to antique Morse code switches designed with elegant precision to fire off a semi-automatic stream of dits and dahs.


Members of the Kennebunk-based New England Radio Discussion Society (NERDS), including, from left, Dave Olean, Tom Moyer, Laurie Cohen, Brian Wood, Susan Bloomfield, and John Nowacki, attempt to make contact with other amateur ham radio operators around the world on Saturday, June 23, from a base camp behind the New School on York Street, as part of Amateur Radio Field Day 2018. An annual 24-hour event in which radio clubs around the world practice making contact with each other, Field Day is the largest emergency preparedness drill in the country, staged every year since 1933 and now involving more than 35,000 ham radio operators in the U.S. and Canada. (Duke Harrington photo) Members of the Kennebunk-based New England Radio Discussion Society (NERDS), including, from left, Dave Olean, Tom Moyer, Laurie Cohen, Brian Wood, Susan Bloomfield, and John Nowacki, attempt to make contact with other amateur ham radio operators around the world on Saturday, June 23, from a base camp behind the New School on York Street, as part of Amateur Radio Field Day 2018. An annual 24-hour event in which radio clubs around the world practice making contact with each other, Field Day is the largest emergency preparedness drill in the country, staged every year since 1933 and now involving more than 35,000 ham radio operators in the U.S. and Canada. (Duke Harrington photo) “There are lot of kids today using a lot of apps on their phones that simulate what we are doing here, but this,” said Laurie Cohen, waving toward the electronic wonderland and the people hunched over it, listening intently for signs of life, “this is still the stuff that actually does it.”

Cohen and his compatriots were participating in Amateur Radio Field Day 2018, an annual 24-hour event in which radio clubs around the world practice making contact with each other. Staged in public locations every year since 1933, it is the largest emergency preparedness drill in the country, now involving more than 35,000 “ham radio” operators across the United States and Canada.

But perhaps ironically, amateur radio is also a hobby that’s rapidly in danger of dying out, as its average participate enters his seventh decade.

The Field Day event was organized by the AARL —founded in 1914 as the Amateur Radio Relay League, but known today as the National Association of Amateur Radio, even though it still uses its original initials. It is meant to simulate what happens when the power goes out, the phone lines go down, and the internet blinks off. That’s when the “hams” spring into action.

And that action is more than theoretical. It’s happened time and time again, as recently as this past September, when Hurricanes Irma and Jose tore a swath of near-apocalyptic destruction across Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast, when the only way of getting information in or out of the affected area was via shortwave radio, bouncing signals off the ionosphere using less electricity than it takes to power a single bulb on a string of Christmas tree lights.

Although more than a century old in in organized form, amateur radio operators have since 204 been an official “auxiliary communications service” recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for use in national emergencies and included in its various Department of Homeland Security operation plans.

The local radio club, which includes about 25 or so active members, is known as the New England Radio Discussion Society.

Yes, the acronym for the group spells NERDS.

“We considered changing it at one point to something more dignified, but the name stuck,” said club co-founder Alex Mendelsohn, with a laugh.

NERDS got its start in 2010 when Mendelsohn and two other fellow longtime hams — Igor Kosvin and the late Dave Sawyer — found themselves kibitzing on their mutual interest over lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. It occurred to them that others of like mind might also enjoy regular discussions on the skill and science of amateur radio.

The result was a club with no constitution, no formal affiliation with other organizations, such as the ARRL, no dues or membership fees, and no formal business meetings. The NERDS simply gather every other Tuesday at The New School. One meeting per month is designed as more of a social gathering, while the second is reserved for more technical presentations. In keeping with the NERDS credo of “Friendship Through Amateur Radio,” membership is open to all, whether or not licensed by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as amateur radio operators.

“Ham radio is really about 50 hobbies rolled into one,” said Dave Olean, “There’s so many different things you can do with it, whether your interest is history, or computers and programming, or electronics, or weather, or communications, or public service, or even competitive problem solving.”

“A lot of our members have had incredible careers in electronics,” said Susan Bloomfield. “Some were in the military, or education, ran their own companies. One even worked on the Apollo space missions.

“It’s an amazing thing,” Bloomfield said. “You’ll be sitting at the table talking about some nuance of radio, and someone will say pipe in to say, ‘Well, you know, the hardest part about communicating with the lunar module . . .’ The wealth of knowledge and experience at any of our meetings is, to me, mindboggling. It fascinates me that we have people in our group who have seen everything from the very difficult, very challenging time of inventing how to communicate with a rocketship, which was itself brand new, to the little miracle (smartphone) you have in your hand.”

Perhaps tellingly, however, almost all of the NERDS are ether deep into, or at rapidly approaching their 70s. Right now, and for the next few years, is the only time in human history when their collective depth of living, institutional memory — running the full breadth of the electronics industry, from vacuum tubes to microchips — will be available to hear and learn from first hand.

Also tellingly, and reflective of how times have changed, almost all of the NERDS hare a similar backstory. To man — and, yes, it’s mostly men — they developed their interest in amateur radio as young teens, in a bygone era when radio operation was, when not a genuine high school elective, at least a popular after school activity.

The term “ham” dates to the 19th century and the days of the telegraph. Those who worked for commercial telegraph outposts often referred to those less proficient in tapping out morse code as being too “ham-fisted” to master the art. But over time, as telegraphy transitioned into wireless communication, non-professionals who nonetheless revealed in the technological aspects of the medium — the nerds of their day, if you will — adopted the one-time pejorative as a sort of self-identity, in much the same way that political parties took to the elephant and donkey symbols that editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast has once used to ridicule them.

“It no longer meant that you didn’t have any skill,” said Bloomfield, “It must meant that you generally did not get paid to exercise that skill.”

For Mendalsohn, his passion for radio began at a voc-tech high school in his native New York, where he picked up the hobby from a lockermate.

“His father was a real character, and would actually lock us in my friends room until we learned the morse code. That’s how important that kind of thing was a the time,” he recalled Saturday morning, during a break in Field Day activities.

Today, morse code is no longer a required part of the FCC test to gain a ham radio license. And Mendalsohn, who builds much of his own equipment, even ething his own circuit boards, does appreciate the more modern aspects of the hobby, such as interfacing via radio directly with individual computers, or sending and receiving video signals. Still, his favorite way to communicate over the air remains morse code, for which he favors a 1940s era Vibroplex semi-automatic morse code switch

“Communicating in morse code is, I find, very relaxing, with the rhythm of the dits and dahs” he says. “Plus, it’s easier to make a contact on code than it is on voice, because the bandwidth is narrower, so the signal-to-noise ratio is much better. If signals get really weak, you can still copy a morse code signal, but there’s really so much you can do, communicating in different ways to people all over the world, and even on the International Space Station.”

George Whitehead, the NERDS member who worked for NASA contractor North American Aviation, knows a thing or two about space stations. He earned his ham radio license in the 9th grade and parlayed that into an electronics degree.

“My basic knowledge in that field came from my amateur radio experience, and my interest in electronics sustains that today,” he said. “It’s always evolving. The irony is that people can get into the hobby today with very sophisticated equipment for less than what we used to do very basic things in the space program.”

For Dave Olean, the hobby began in Connecticut, when, at age 16, he and his younger brother sent away for a walkie-talkie kit that, when assembled, did not work.

“Of course, when you’re a kid you have all the time in the world,” he recalled. “We putzed around with that thing for the better part of half a year. We didn’t have any idea what we were doing. But one day we did something, I don’t know what, and it burst into life and we actually heard somebody on it.”

The signal was weak, however, so the brothers climbed an apple tree in their backyard for better reception.

“Suddenly, we could hear the guy, and that was it, from that moment on we were hooked,” he said. “We were like, this is cool! Maybe that was a different time, but I still think it is.”

Olean actually went on to earn a college degree in geology, but retained his interest in the airwaves above ground. One day, representatives from anantennea company, noticing the array Olean had built and designed to bounce short-wave signals off the moon, stopped by his home and offered him a job. He quickly became the their chief engineer, eventually going on to found his own aerial company, which he finally sold when he retired 23 years later.

Although a ham radio can work with any wire tossed in a tree, the antenna used by the NERDS during Field Day was the one piece Olean hung onto when he sold the company, although he did have to fabricate one new part to make it work.

“The thing I like most about ham radio is the sounds that come over the airwaves,” Olean said. “When the signals go through the ionosphere, the signals get changed. If there’s an aurora, it gets a buzzing sound. When the signal comes off the moon, the voices come back whispery and water, because the moon is not a perfect reflector. So, I hear that and it fascinates me. Maybe I’m a geek, but I love to listen for those sounds to figure out what I can about conditions where the signal came from.”

Laurie Cohen got interested in amateur radio when it was the subject club at Kennebunk High School in the early 1950s, back when the equipment “was the size of suitcases.”

“That was the trigger for me, hearing the talk to people in other states and often overseas, and to military planes and ships at sea, back before cell phones were invented,” he said.

Now a retired industrial compressor engineer, Cohen still enjoys those moments modern communications can’t match, such as a recent incident when he got a radio signal from a chemical tanker 700 miles off New Zealand, and helped patch a young man aboard to his mother in California by patching his radio set into her telephone.

“You have to have a certain curiosity to enjoy this kind of thing, but it’s something that I think lot of young people could benefit from,” Cohen said. “It’s a real mix of new and old technologies.”

“It’s amazing to me that some of this stuff is still around,” said John Nowacki, “Some of it is so primitive, but it was made so beautifully. A cell phone is basically a two-way radio.

For Nowacki, a retired physical teacher at Noble High School, ham radio “had been the hobby of a lifetime.”

“It started for me when I was 13 and coming up it will be 60 years I’ve had an amateur radio license,” he said. “The fact that I can sit at home and send up a signal with just 5 watts of power, and it goes up and bounces around in the ionosphere for a while and ends up in England or somewhere.

“I studied physics my whole life an I still think that’s remarkable that that can happen,” Nowacki said. “There’s something in the mystery of that that really connects with me. It’s almost too hard to believe. And then the technological aspects of it — it’s just the delieft of constant experiments, trying to make something work, often from parts and pieces you’ve built yourself.”

Among the NERDS, Bloomfield is somewhat unique, both because she is one of the few women in the club, but also because she earned her amateur radio license as an adult. But even for her, the hobby dates to her youth, when she’d listen to her brother Don run his bedroom radio.

“I would listen to him as a little kid, talking to people from all over the world, jumping on his bed and begging him to not use the morse code, so I could hear what people were saying,” she said.

A former health sciences librarian, Bloomfield attended a radio class in Wells after he brother died. Just two students showed, but the class went on, and she eventually earned her license in honor of Don, who had recently passed away.

“I was so elated,” she said. “I can’t think of a test in the last 30 years I was so excited about passing. It was tremendously nostalgic, because I remembered my brother being so into it.”

More recently, Bloomfield was able to trade her own license and radio call sign in for the one her brother held for so many years — WB2UQP.

When an amateur radio operated dies, his or her license/call sign becomes known as a silent key, named for the morse code signal “SK” that was often the last thing transmitted before a station went off the air for good. As it happens, the FCC has a Silent Key program that allows family members to lay claim to a retired license within a set period after the owner dies. For Bloomfield, doing so meant everything.

“I memorized that (call sign) when I was about 5-year-old, because I heard him saying it all the time,” she said.

Bloomfield had hoped the NERDS’ Field Day activities would draw public attention, enticing young people to the hobby while her fellow members are still around and kicking enough to share their combined knowledge. However, perhaps because of the rain, few non-NERDS showed.

Still, Mendalsohn and Nowacki staged a display of antique radios this past winter, and that attracted the interest of a science teacher at KHS. There’s interest in starting up a new club like the one Cohen was part of so long ago, using $49 radio kits created for modern teens.

“We’d like to help kids learn about electronics and soldering and components and get their license to get on the air and learn and do other things,” Mendelsohn said.

“This hobby is not going to appeal to everybody,” Olean said. “It’s probably a tough sell in today’s world. But our challenge is to locate the youngsters who could be interested. You run it by 50 people and you’re bound to find one who says, ‘I like the way that sounds.’ Something about it is going to grab them.

“That’s our job, to find those people and make sure they get grabbed,” he said.

Join the fun

Want to learn more about amateur radio? Plan to attend a session of the New England Radio Discussion Society (NERDS), held every other Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the New School, 38 York St., in Kennebunk.

The next meetings are July 10 and 24. For more information, see nerds73.org online.

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