HAMFEST
John Yeung '53 Toronto

Ham radio operation is a popular hobby. It allows people living in different parts of the world to communicate with one another cheaply and conveniently over short waves. In Ontario alone, there are more than forty thousand registered and licensed ham radio operators. Each operator has to pass an examination. This will enable him/her to operate the radio responsibly by observing the international rules and regulations of short wave radios. Some hamfests have indoor facilities to conduct such examinations and provide technical seminars.

In the States, there are millions of such registered users with the US Government. In time of peace, they use the shortwave ham radios to chitchat with one another during the quiet hours, but in case of emergencies, ham radios can be used in rescue work and dispatches of personnel over a wide disaster area. The spin-off effect of the ham radio is far and wide. One aspect of it is the tremendous development in the area of high and low frequency transmission techniques over the last seven decades, and the countless advancement in the design of antennae for propagation and reception of radio waves. The development of ham radio and military development almost go hand in hand. One benefits the other, and vice versa.

The word "ham" was coined from the English cockney pronunciation of "amateur". Amateur radio was the formal term used, but most radio fans use the term ham radio instead.

Hamfest is a ham radio flea market. There are about 10 or so hamfests sponsored by the local district radio clubs in each large Canadian province, and in each State, mostly in the spring-fall. The vendors at the markets are mostly private individuals who want to sell off some of their surplus equipment. But, strangely enough, most vendors are also compulsive buyers. Some end up buying more items at the market than they can sell off.

The saying that one person・s trash is another・s treasure is also very true at the ham market. There is a buyer for every item, provided it is cheap and given enough exposure. With enough luck, one can buy an item worth $100 for a dollar. Some vendors clean out their basements or garages by selling off some items in order to leave their houses in better shape. They hope that these items can be put to better use by someone from the ham market. For the buyers, their original intention of buying is to keep or restore. But, after a while, the same items may be back in the market for sale again. And the cycle of buy and sell will begin once more.

Some compulsive buyers may fret about carrying too many heavy items picked up at the market. These items are called "boat anchors", a jargon used by the ham fans.

In the middle of the morning, when the sun is high and hot, and several hours of driving have passed before making it to the market, buyers would become fatigued and sleepy. Such few items carried by hand would fast become a heavy burden. But, at the end of the shopping spree, one always feels the reward and personal satisfaction of buying.

What makes people go to the ham market? The answers are diverse : the prospect of finding a particular item, bargain hunting, sightseeing, a chance to introduce their loved ones to the culture of ham radio, reminiscence of the past, and, most important of all, a face-to-face meeting with those whom they have never met but have known for some time over the radio wave. They recognize one another by their call signs. Each person bears a call sign on his/her hat for identification. A typical call sign consists of five or six letters or numerals in combination, such as VE3HMY. A call sign is assigned to a person for life. Call signs are similar to radio station names.

Some live on a meager pension, while others are financially successful, but at the ham meet, they all have the same interest in what is available for sale. People may look at certain articles on display more intensely than others, but they always respect the vendor・s pride of ownership. People are friendly and easy to talk to. If I do not know the intent or use of a certain article, as long as I ask, the vendor or a passer-by always takes pains to explain it to me. That is the spirit of the hamfests.

I once brought a man from Hong Kong , an electronic parts merchant, to the world・s biggest hamfest in Dayton, Ohio. There were more than 3,000 vendor spots (tailgate spots) displaying articles from antique wares to relatively modern communications equipment. It was a virtual annual ritual for many fans to come to this three-day gigantic meet. People came from all over the States, and as far as Germany, Japan, Hawaii and Canada. The man wondered why people would buy all those antiquated equipment that he literally discarded years ago. I reminded him that people bought the articles mainly for the joy of ownership they provided. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To be able to fondle an old article is like taking a trip down memory lane to those happy years again.

I met a man in his seventies at an Elmira hamfest near Corning, NY. He promised to sell me some vacuum tubes in exchange for some old and broken pocket watches I had brought from Canada. He was formerly a chemist in Corning Glass by trade, but he repaired watches as a hobby. On the morning of the next hamfest, sure enough he appeared. But he looked more frail than the last time I saw him. He was unable to drive. His wife drove him to the hamfest instead. As soon as the couple arrived at the tailgate spot, before settling down, people swarmed over their boxes of vacuum tubes (the hot items). But he refused to sell to them until I had the chance to exercise my option to buy.

One senior citizen told me that he kept going to the hamfests and tinkering with the radio equipment to avoid brain death. "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

During the episode when the American plane was forced down over China, I was asked by an American friend from Warren, Pennsylvania, what my thought was. I assured him that the incident would be resolved amicably by the two nations.

. The Americans are among the most patriotic people on earth. They are just as religiously conscious. Former President Jimmy Carter once said religion helped people to face the ultimate reality.

On the shortwave broadcasts, on a typical night, there are no fewer than two or three shortwave stations broadcasting news and religious songs from their home base.

The 9/11 bombings created the biggest impact on the American mind, far more than the Pearl Harbor attack. But the Americans did not know where to turn to vent their anger. So, they turned on Saddam Hussein. After that fateful day of 9/11, American flags were seen flying over most cars and houses in the Mid-west states, and some cars and houses in the Eastern states. My niece・s husband, who lives in New Jersey, told me he also hung a flag in his front porch. He did so not to show his patriotism but to avoid his neighbours・ gossip of his lack of it.

Speaking of American patriotism, one subtle difference, I noticed, between Mid-westerners and people living in the eastern big suburban areas was that Mid-westerners have a more cohesive patriotism compared to the mixed ethnic groups in the eastern big cities and suburbs. The older age groups in the Mid-west tend to drive full size domestic cars, but the younger age groups in the eastern suburbs of New York, New Jersey, and the New England states tend to drive trendy Japanese import.

Gordon Sinclair, Canada・s noted journalist, had a broadcast and a record to praise the Americans in June1973, called "The Americans". The original text and wording of the record can be seen on www.rcc.ryerson.ca/ccf/news/unique/am_text.html.

The average person who attends the market has a post-secondary school education. He/she may be a technician or specialist in some field, not necessarily electronics. I met several professors, and followed up with interesting meetings at their homes. One physics department head in Columbus, Ohio, sold me thousands of tubes for a give-away price. I met an ex-Flying Tiger pilot who was stationed at the same G.I. airbase where we were in China during W.W. II. My brother worked as a cook at that American hospital, and I was a bellboy. Meetings like these bring back good memories.

In the evenings, I used to sneak into the GI theatre to watch American movies. On some nights, instead of movies, the GIs would have a sing along. Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin had provided the Americans with a rich legacy of poetical and sentimental songs. Songs like "Aura Lee" and "Oh Susannah" by the former, and some wartime songs by the latter, were among the favourite sung by the GIs. These songs provided much morale boosting in time of war, and national bonding in time of peace.

There are at least 15 or so patriotic songs in the U.S. that are accepted as equivalent to the national anthem. These songs could be played or sung in place of the national anthem. No other nation on earth has as many songs of such status.

Songs could have such influence and effect on a nation・s people. In Ontario, some public school boards were thinking of totally eliminating music classes. This was an unimaginable and unconscionable thing to do. Our young children would be robbed of future enjoyment and a means for national bonding.

Meetings with people at the hamfests were not always cheerful. A couple of fathers told me their only son had passed away due to kidney or heart problems. Of course, no one could accept the fate of burying one・s own son. In situations such as these, I really did not know how to find words to comfort them. More and more people have cardiac and related problems these days. Is it due to the prevalent diet and the overuse of cars as replacement for walking ?

The average ham market starts at 7a.m. It is customary for the vendor and buyer to get up in the wee hour to start driving to the market. Some are physically handicapped due to severe obesity; others are just plain old and frail, yet they are all eager to show up at this early hour. This is the true spirit of the hamfests.

I usually left my house before dawn. The usual trip was through the QE Way, across the border, along the NY I190 to I90. It was about 5 a.m. the traffic was light and driving was enjoyable. The uninterrupted music from AM 740 played songs from the .50s and .60s. When "Cherry Pink Apple Blossom White" and "Blue Tango" were played, I was reminded of the time on board the President S.S. Cleveland on my trip abroad to study.

A few minutes later, the yellow silhouette of light started to appear on the east north-east horizon, over Lake Ontario. It signaled the start of another fine day, and promised a good morning for the ham market.

At 6 a.m. sharp, the radio started broadcasting a full hour of commercial on anti-aging remedies.

Once over the border and onto I190, the feeling of openness and freedom started to engulf me. The U.S. interstate highways were much wider, and there were road reflector posts at fixed intervals on both sides of the road. That made driving at night much more easy and relaxing. That trip covered cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady and Albany.

A trip like that reminded me of my student days. After the last day of my summer job, I used to visit my hard-working father in New York City before the semester started. I usually took a Greyhound bus to New York City. I liked to sit one seat behind the driver, on the other side of the aisle. There, I observed how he followed the traffic, how to change lanes, how to stay alert, how to communicate with other motorists on the road, how to keep the wheel steady, how to anticipate on-coming traffic, and, most of all, how to drive defensively.

To this day, I enjoy driving. I pay tribute to those Greyhound drivers from whom I learned part of my driving skills. Last year, I stopped driving for a couple of months due to a minor stroke. When I resumed driving again, I appreciated even more the privilege and responsibility of driving.

1960 was a depression year. In that year, jobs were scarce . I obtained my first driving license in chauffeur・s license category. With that license, I was able to drive a commercial truck. Out of work, I was almost tempted to pick up a job driving trucks.

On the Toronto-New York trip, the bus left Toronto at 8 p.m. and stopped at each city along the way in the middle of the night and in the early hours. I used to look sheepishly out of the window at every city we passed; sheepishly, because I was carrying a student visa.

Now, with my Canadian citizenship, I was able to enter the States at any point and time. Despite the post 9/11 security measures, entering the U.S. border was relatively easy for me. The word hamfest worked like magic. It was a password. As soon as I told the customs officer that I was going to the hamfest, he would let me through and wish me a good trip. Sometimes, he did not even bother to look at my travel documents.

Making a trip back to those cities was a sentimental journey for me. It reminded me of my late father, the fate of the cities, and the complete freedom (of movement) I enjoyed now in the States.

I feel for the cities because, over the years, they have suffered economic downturn. They have lost much of their charm and luster since the big industries were gone. For example, Bethlehem Steels in Buffalo, the company we visited in our third year Engineering, was shut down. Eastman Kodak in Rochester had constricted due to market share. Stromberg Carlson, also in Rochester, disappeared completely. G.E., whose illuminated "Electronic Park" sign was so huge that I never missed it when the bus went through Syracuse, had gone. Albany was the capital of New York, yet most of its big enterprises have started moving to the sun-belt areas since the .70s. These cities have almost become "ghost cities". Any big business left in the cities has been lured away to the large malls in the suburbs, leaving the city core gasping for air.

These cities remind me how blessed we Canadians are. Up here, we are in the more remote north, and the industries are far and in between, yet we are able to sustain the affluence that we have been enjoying.

There are only ten provinces and three territories in Canada. It should be a relatively easy country to govern. Yet one always hears cities complaining of under funding to the provincial governments, and provincial governments complaining about under funding and lack of political freedom to the federal government. In the States, there seems to be more harmonious co-operation between the States and the Federal Government on national matters; at least we do not see so much bickering on TV.

Driving at night on the state highways was not without peril. I never drove faster than my lower head beams. On an average night, I could spot two or three deer carcasses on the roadside.

They were run over by passing vehicles. They reminded me how fragile life was. On the same night, I passed several cattle hauls loaded with hogs or cattle. They were destined for the slaughterhouse. I felt a bit numb. It reminded me of the song "Donna, Donna" by Joan Baez:

   Donna, Donna
   On a wagon, bound for market,
   There・s a calf with mournful eye.
   High above him there・s a swallow
   Winging swiftly through the air.
   How the winds are laughing;
   They laugh with all their might,
   Laugh and laugh the whole day through
   And half the summer・s night.

   Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna,
   Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna,
   Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna,
   Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna.

   "Stop complaining", said the farmer.
   "Who told you a calf to be?
   Why don・t you have wings to fly with
   Like the swallow so proud and free?"

   Calves are easily bound and slaughtered,
   Never knowing the reason why.

   But however, treasure freedom
   Like the swallow who learned to fly.

Why would man become a meat-eater? Why would the Americans start feeding the cattle growth hormone just to produce more milk? There was an excess of dairy products in the market already. The use of hormone merely started the vicious circle of supply and demand. People were fast getting dangerously obese at an alarming rate, partly due to diet and social trends. Yet they were induced to eat more dairy products. Big cones of ice cream, big slaps of cheese, milk shake, processed meats, pops and so on. Several years ago, MacDonald・s sold fish fillet sandwiches filled with fish fillets only. Now, every fish fillet sandwich automatically included a slice of cheese. That really spoiled the meaning of eating fish as a Friday observance.

I recently received a copy of the Antique Wireless Association Journal. The cover showed a happy looking boy with a load of stuff he bought at the wireless market. But my attention was drawn to the fact that this boy was but one of the many obese young people in our affluent society. The American and Canadian medical societies have been warning the public of the danger of obesity for the last few years, but it might take a long while before people really take action, just as it took several decades for the government to ban cigarette smoking in public areas.

In one of my previous trips, I had the opportunity to visit Kent, a small town in Ohio. The ham market took place at the Kent State University campus. On that day, my buddy, who lived in Poland, Ohio, reminded me that Kent State University was the site of riots by students in the sixties. They destroyed the chemical warfare lab in the university. The National Guards were called in, and several students were killed.

Barry Wood, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at the time, wrote a book called "Magnificent Frolic" based largely on that incident.

I feel privileged to have been able to see so many historic and interesting towns and countries: scenic routes in the Delaware Water Gap areas in NJ, winding roads in Lake Placid, mountainous roads in the Shenandoah National Park in VirginiaK.. May be, ten years from now, I may be too old to drive. When that time comes, I may not have the mobility to go places, but I will be basking in the sun, and reminiscing those happy trips that I have made. I have met many interesting people, some of whom go back to the time I lived in a GI camp in China during World War II.

"My cup runneth over" with fond memories from bygone years.

Courtesy of OTB, The Old Timer・s Bulletin, October 2004, Vol.45/#4
Official Journal of the Antique Wireless Association, Inc.