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My First Field Day

Bert Herald (wf7i) on June 25, 2001
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I thought I would take the opportunity to describe my first major contest. Field Day of 1987, held in the pine tree country near Strawberry, Arizona. It was an experience that would forever change my view of contesting and ham radio itself.

Prior to that day, I had thought of contesting as a nuisance, simply a bunch of noise to try to tune away from in the course of operating the bands. This attitude came about largely due to my elmer, a very gifted technician named Evert, W7RXV, who loved to design and build circuits of all kinds, including HF gear. For him, the joy of ham radio came exclusively from what he could build. Operating was a necessity to test the newly-built hardware, but not an art in and of itself. Since we all learn our initial attitudes from our elmers, and since I was a very impressionable 15 year old, I was firmly in the anti-contest camp!

When my parents helped me make the trip to Stawberry that summer, I had only been a ham for 2 years. I didn't know what field day was, other than it was a big contest that was out in nature, and that part was appealing to me. I loved camping and hiking, so, I had to attend! I went with a group from the Scottsdale Amateur Radio Club, a very active contesting club with some serious contesters. That club was also very instrumental in my intial interest in ham radio, having taught classes for the novice and general class ticket exams. My parents would drop me off at their meetings, and I would listen with wide-eyed interest in the presentations being given, over so many topics that were over my head. But one topic I could understand, and that was contesting!

Operate as many stations as you could in a 24 hour period, using only emergency power, and having to camp out on a mountain top site. How amazing! Now this I could sink my teeth into. I was a great CW op, at that early age, already mastering code up to 30 WPM in just a couple of years. Although I didn't know what the procedures were for a contest, I was eager to find out what it was all about.

When we pulled up in our station wagon that Friday afternoon, the towers were already assembled. Huge multielement yagis, hoisted high into the air on the towers, filled the sky. I had never witnessed anything like this before.

The cook for the group, who made excellent food that I still have fond memories of, had set up shop and was serving dinner (hamburgers with all the fixings, if I recall). I can still smell the aroma mixed in with the pine scent and fresh air!

I could hear, echoing through the forests, dits and dahs, like some kind of strange music, coming from the multiple radio stations. I gradually made my way from station to station, to check out what was going on. Everyone was making final adjustments, checking SWR, installing their automated keyers, and some were just using the time to operate, pulling in Europe and commenting on the propagation. I remember vividly one odd little station which was setup for 6 meters and perhaps some other bands as well, off to the side. The conversation going on was something to the effect that "...this band has been dead all day, but when it opens up, it can really explode..." I remember thinking that, surely at such a high frequency as 50 MHz, there would be no activity, and this setup was a waste of time! Which is funny, because now, years later, 6m is my band of choice, and is anything but dead, especially during field day!

Following a night of restless sleep, with visions of contesting running through my head, I awoke to a breakfast of pancakes and bacon, washed down with orange juice. Again, food of such excellent quality as you have never tasted in the finest of restaurants! I then stood beside one station -- I believe tuned to 20 meters -- and watched as the contest opened. "cq field day, cq field day, november 7 tango radio...november 7 texas radio, CQ field day". The stations just poured in! And all were S9 or better. The clamor was unbelieveable, like a hive of killer bees set loose on their target. I never had the equipment at home to hear the bands with the clarity that I did that day. What an experience! Our contest station held the frequency for at least 2 hours, before the guy at the mike took a break.

The signup sheets for who was going to operate when were being checked. Everyone had a slot, and boy oh boy, you did not operate in someone else's slot! These contesters were serious, and I recall a couple of exchanges regarding who's turn it was to grab the mike or keyer! Fortunatly all conflicts were resolved peacefully, and it left an impression on me how much devotion these hams had for their contesting.

As the day wore on, I visited all the stations. 10m, 20m, 15m, 40m. The 6m station had just worked their predicted avalanche of contacts, and there was a buzz about that. Someone had copied a W1AW bulletin for additional points. And someone else had made a satellite contact. There was a lot happening, to be sure. Seems like someone also worked a packet QSO, possibly over satellite, for a bonus point, and yet more bonus points for solar power. It seemed like the contest was really rolling along.

As day turned to night, gradually the 10m station migrated to 15, then to 20. Now 40, 80 and 160m bands were the places to be. Duplicates started to rear their ugly heads, too! It was in this timeframe that I got my chance to experience a contest first-hand. I was given the chance to be a logger.

My first logging duty was on a phone station. I can still envision the dial, glowing brightly in the darkness of night. There was a strategy, the op told me, of picking a frequency, and holding it. But if that dried up, you had to tune around, and pick 'em off here and there. And sure enough, things went fast and furious at the beginning, but soon, the well dried up. He began tuning off frequency, and we would pick up several more. In another 20 or 30 minutes, we tried a new frequency and began to call CQ. A new wave of stations began hitting us. Then we'd hit a station or two that he recognized from prior years of field days. "Oh, hi there John, how're you guys doing in this year's field day?" A brief rag chew would ensue, broken only by the knowledge that there were points to be made yet in the contest. The competitors would part ways, and the contest rolled ahead.

It was also during this time that I really began to witness propagation affects. As the dusk came on, the signals began to stretch out over the pacific. Hawaii came in first, then soon we were hearing Japan and VK/ZL land! I soon learned that in the morning, conditions favored European stations, and the east coast. How interesting! I never had the antennas before to witness much more than nearby stateside activity.

Then around 10 PM or so, I had the opportunity to visit a 40m CW station. Again, I was given the duty of logging. Now I was in another world. The code flew by at dizzying speeds. "CQ FD CQ FD DE K7TR K7TR K" was sent at seemingly 45 WPM or more! And everyone else was responding in kind. At first I was very intimidated by this speed. Although I was good at CW, the stress of the contest made me nervous. And the op was losing patience with me, telling me several times in a loud voice what the exchange was, or "did you get that??" Then, when it seemed I was going to drown in the flurry of dits and dahs, an amazing thing happened. It all came through crystal clear!

Suddenly, I was copying all of the high speed CW in my head, as if it were speech. The op settled down, gaining confidence in my ability to log his QSOs. He was able to pull out some real weak signal stuff that I still couldn't hear, but overall, I was on top of it! We were humming along, blowing through a couple of hundred QSOs or more. Then, gradually, the activity tapered off. He was getting tired, and I looked at my watch and it was midnight! Wow, did those hours fly by quick. He looked at the op log, and nobody was due at the station until about 2 AM. He wanted to hit the hay, and to my astonishment, offered to turn the controls over to me! I of course obliged. Although I had to do my own logging, the band had settled down and the slower pace was not going to cost the team a whole lot.

When he left, I had to get adjusted to the key. It was a standard keyer, with the left paddle for dits and the right for dahs, but I had only used straight keys up until then. I started out by just doing "CQ" several times. Man, how fast! It was difficult to master, but after about 3 or 4 times, I was steady enough to go forward.

The QSOs gradually came in. 4A WV. 2D NY. This was getting to be easy! I didn't know what the controls did on the radio, and I dared not to touch them. But I did know the band limits, and I eagerly tuned around to see what I could hear. After about 10 stations, I was smooth with the logging and the sending. And my receiving skills were already top notch after having done all of that logging.

The thrill of finally controlling one of these powerful stations, and actually contributing to the team score, was something that is hard to describe. It's difficult to say what was more rewarding, actually mastering the operating skills for the CW station, or earning the trust and respect of the CW op I took over from. The experience was something I certainly had not been prepared for. It was such a departure from the humdrum of typical stateside ragchews that I had done with my meager dipole and Galaxy III boatanchor setup at home!

I must have logged about 50-60 stations before my relief showed up at 2 AM. I admit, I was tired by then, and all of that operating and logging! But how exciting! My head was still spinning from all of the things I had witnessed that day. I crawled into my tent, after stumbling through the forest. I fell asleep listening to the CW echoing through the forest, trying to copy the exchanges. That, and the buzz of all the generators, gradually lulled me to sleep.

The following morning was not nearly as exciting. It seemed that most contacts were dupes by that point, and several stations were being shut down. It seemed clear that we were going to be close to a record of some type, according to the buzz I was hearing.

So, after another fantastic breakfast amid the pines, my family and I folded up our tents, and headed back to Tempe, my hometown. What really struck me during that time was how the contest was not just a one-time event. People developed a history with the contest. It became a part of their life, something to plan for, something to look forward to for the coming year. And it also struck me how Field Day was not an ordinary contest, but seemed to take on a much greater significance as a meeting place for old friends, on and off the air. A chance to talk late into the night over some hot coffee in the wilderness about tall tales of operating lore, the sunspot peaks of the 1950's, or how the folks were doing. In short, Field Day was trully an event that had evolved into something more than simply a contest. And perhaps the world of contesting as a whole deserved a second look. Instead of being simply those guys who clog up the bands, something more was going on here.

And then, all I could think about was going to the next year's field day!

-- Bert WF7I
Tucson, AZ

Member Comments: Add A Comment
My First Field Day Reply
by n8pzd on June 25, 2001 Mail this to a friend!
Hello from the Great Lakes region, Northern Ohio area. I really enjoyed my first field day, I had been involved in servicing radio equipment part-time for a friend's shop before I had my ham ticket so I thought I had pretty much seen it all. The year I got my ticket I was introduced to someone who told me I could use my Commodore C64 to initiate contacts on-the-air, he helped me get a kit wired up and we tested several times before field day weekend - imagine that 1200 baud on a machine that was previously limited to 300, I was hooked! Once set-up at the field day site in a soccer field I connected to a radio bbs and checked for other packeteers, there was more than 3 screens of stations who had been on since the 2PM starting time - I never thought there would be this much activity. So off I went pursueing the stations thru the digipeaters and gateways to reach them and pass along our 5A OH battery, get the exchange and open up the gateways for others to use, all the time checking for more stations to contact. This mode fascinated me almost exclusively for the whole weekend, I put the monitor under a cooler so the light wouldn't wake anyone in the tent and kept plinking away long into the night. I had copied the ARRL message and also sent out several birthday messages for visitors and a few to our area ARES and ARRL officials, what an amazing mode! I did manage to visit the phone stations and listen in on some cw blinking along at over 20 words per minute before the final contact was made at 1:59 on Sunday. I have now seen the PSK mode in action and can't wait to try it after I get the CW test out of the way, off to the tapes! Hailing from Northern Ohio, 73and 76...Clark Beckman N8PZD
RE: My First Field Day Reply
by kc7rad on December 12, 2001 Mail this to a friend!
Very good article! Brought back great memories of my 1st one, way back in 1983. Quick recap of my first FD: Got to camp out with my girlfriend; drank beer at age 17; pointed a 5 element 2M Yagi tward an OSCAR using the 'armstrong' method; and almost lost my eye when I fell down in the woods after using the 'necessary room'.

Oh, during the 2nd one, we got to hide-out in the bathrooms when the tornado alarms went off!
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