Ham radio buffs often face choice of hobby or home

Struggle: As America becomes more urbanized, amateur operators are being squeezed out of their communities or forced off the air.

December 02, 2004|By Nikki Waller | Nikki Waller,KNIGHT RIDDER TRIBUNE

MIAMI - With pursed lips and a steady hand, WA4YDK spins the dial, searching for a voice or a signal somewhere amid the fuzz caused by solar flares and an especially low-hanging aurora borealis.

Eventually, a voice crackles from the speaker: "Copy. Copy, WA4YDK."

A connection made, WA4YDK - known outside radio land as Elliot Kleiman of Cooper City, Fla. - smiles faintly.

Ham radio operators like Kleiman delight in moments like this.

Kleiman, 67, has been a federally licensed amateur radio operator, or ham, for more than 50 years.

The retired computer science professor has been a resident of Cooper City's Embassy Lakes gated community for about three.

But like many hams today, he faces growing pressure to choose between his hobby and his home.

As the nation grows more urbanized and more housing developments write no-antenna rules into their deeds, many hams find themselves squeezed out of their communities or pushed off the air.

"Hams are finding that communities are less friendly," said Stephanie Phillips, a Brevard County, Fla., ham operator and a Florida spokeswoman for the Amateur Radio Relay League, or ARRL.

Despite obstacles, ham radio appears to be growing. About 680,000 Americans are licensed amateur radio operators, up about 25,000 from 1995, according to ARRL.

A breed known for ingenuity, hams find crafty ways to stay on the air and in touch with the world.

Some send signals from radio setups hidden in their cars, some jury-rig stealth antennas behind bushes or shrubs or in rain gutters.

And more than one southern Florida resident, including Kleiman, has been known to transmit messages while riding a bicycle.

Hams insist that they serve their communities by maintaining an emergency network that still buzzes with activity when other forms of communication go down. Towns with rules that send hams elsewhere might find themselves out of luck when disaster strikes, Phillips said.

Local hams often refer to this year's hurricane season, when hams helped emergency personnel in several storm-ravaged Florida cities.

Kleiman resolved to give up his ham habit when he learned Embassy Lakes does not permit antenna towers. But he could not ignore the hobby that first fascinated him as a young man.

He considered running an antenna from his yellow Corvette until his wife reminded him the `Vette is a lease. So he set up a spindly antenna on a stepladder beside his backyard pool, where a glade of palms conceals him from the neighbors' view.

The weak signal barely allows Kleiman to be heard above the static, but he can still tune in and talk to someone across the county or halfway around the world.

A spin of the dial on a recent weekday afternoon yielded lots of static and some normal ham chatter: reports of weather conditions in different places, discussions of antenna setups and complaints about zealous local zoning rules.

"Michael, you would not believe the bureaucracy," said one ham to another before Kleiman tuned to the next station.

Hams frequently use the word "magic" to describe moments of two-way contact, known in ham lingo as QSOs. Some operators go for distance - DX to hams - seeking QSOs from faraway countries.

Ham signals can travel thousands of miles with the help of repeaters and other devices that relay signals from one spot to the next.

Alan Wolfe, a Miami-Dade County, Fla., elementary school music teacher who gives after-school ham classes to students, hopes to pass his hobby along to a generation raised on Internet and video games.

Ham radio first enthralled Wolfe at age 9. It has not let go, he said.

"I watched my uncle sit there with his microphone at night, I watched the radio tubes glow, listening to see who in the world would get back to us," he said.

Today, he and his wife, a cellist who lives in New Jersey, talk over ham frequencies every night.

Married last year in Wellesley, Mass., the couple performed some of their vows over the airwaves. Their call letters were spelled out on the cake.

Wolfe (also known as WB4L) transmits from his home in unincorporated Miami-Dade, where city rules do not obstruct his antenna. He also has mounted radio equipment on his car and his bicycle. His wife, WX2L, communicates with a rotating antenna attached to her Honda Civic.

When they are together, the two sit in a hammock and send signals out side by side, said Wolfe.

"We'll look up at the stars through our antennas, and to us, it's like some beautiful work of art," he said. "It's magic."

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