Ham On The Airwaves

The Herald | Ham On The Airwaves

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Story by Jonathan Saxon

Photos by Daniel Vasta

It’s a clear spring day at Patoka Lake and on first glance, nothing that interesting seems to be happening. Sure, there are brief signs of activity as the animals make their rounds through the tree line and hikers mosey around the park’s trails. But nothing jumps out as being that strange or out of place.

But if you make your way down the road toward the beach, you stumble upon a different sight. In a clearing, there’s a group of men hustling around a picnic site setting up all manner of communications equipment. They have receivers, transmitters, web books and microphones. They even have portable towers and wires, which they’re using to set up antennas.

These gentlemen are amateur radio operators, specifically, members of the Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club, and they have taken this late morning period to set up shop at Patoka Lake and see who else is out there on the radio waves. If they can make a connection.

Mike Vogler of Celestine, left, and Rick Hockett of Ethel make contact with amateur radio operators during a Parks on the Air field day at Patoka Lake in Wickliffe on April 17.

“Blasted box isn’t working, I swear I charged the batteries on this before we came out,” says Mike Vogler, one of the enterprising amateur radio operators — known as “hams” — who is out this morning. He brought what he calls his “go box” radio, but it appears to be out of power and he can’t figure out why. Soon, his partners, Rick Hockett and Mike Maffenbeier, wander over to see if they can improve the situation.

Vogler, 70, serves as president of the Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club, and the Jasper native traces his interest in ham radio to his childhood. He was fascinated with how he could point a wire to the sky and pick up audible signals through a receiver.

What started as simply listening to short-wave radios as a kid eventually led to some dabbling with ham radio in the 1980s. But other factors, such as his career and family, kept Vogler from putting significant time and effort into amateur radio operations.

However, after retiring and moving back to Celestine in 2010, Vogler noticed that, even though there were hams in the area, Dubois County lacked a dedicated club that could connect the various operators with others who shared their interest and enthusiasm in amateur radio.

“It was nonexistent in the county,” he says. “Forty years ago we had a ham radio club, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to grow this hobby.”

Mark Hunefeld of Ferdinand, left, club secretary Jody Denning of Ferdinand, club president Mike Vogler of Celestine, Rick Hockett of Ethel and Phil Smith of Huntingburg attend a Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club meeting at Mac-A-Doo's in Jasper on May 14. 

Vogler calls ham radio, and the things you can do through amateur operations, magical. He can talk for days about the science behind radio communications and how it has seized his attention for more than six decades.

You can hear the excitement in his voice when he describes being able to communicate with other hams, not just locally, but also across the country and the globe with a relatively simple setup of equipment.

Not having others to share his hobby with bothered him, so Vogler went about trying to gather the hams so they all could share in the fun that is amateur radio broadcasting. His efforts started at the Dubois County Emergency Management Agency meetings, since most of the local hams also worked for the agency.

“I used to go to those meetings, I knew some of those guys from the past,” says Vogler. “I (thought) there might be an opportunity here to start a club, recruit, educate and attract more people into ham radio.”

After having those initial conversations with EMA hams, Vogler decided to launch the club in 2015. He said the initial meeting only brought out six other hams, but the camaraderie was solid and the collective grew from there. Today, the Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club has 19 active members, and Vogler is always looking for more folks to add to the ranks.

“We got some good quality members that have stepped forward,” he says. “There’s a database I check — there’s about 100 hams in Dubois County. There’s got to be more interest in this.”

So how do you get a start in the world of ham radio?

First, you have to get your radio license, which is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. There are three different amateur radio licensing levels — technician, general and extra — and each level comes with different rights and privileges. Each license level requires an exam, which is administered by volunteer examiners, that covers radio theory, regulations and operating practices. That may seem intimidating, at first, but the Patoka Valley Club and other ham radio clubs in the area hold classes that teach interested prospects what they need to know to hop on the airwaves.

Many kinds of people are drawn to ham radio. Some are lured by the technical aspects and are enamored with the latest gizmos, gadgets and other technological advances that have come along in communications technology since the first radio was invented in 1895.

Amateur radio equipment at Vogler's home station in Celestine on May 30.

There are others who are drawn to the skill that goes with broadcasting and being able to transmit signals across great distances. Some see it as a necessary skill that could be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation, while others simply like the social bonding that comes with making new friends through radio contact.

For Vogler, ham radio allows him to indulge his more competitive side through his participation in special events and contests.

At his home in Celestine, he has a room set up specifically for his radio activities, and has a wall where he displays all of the awards and certificates he’s earned over the years. To date, Vogler has more than 3,200 confirmed contacts, with 85 being his high for a single day. He has contacted someone from all 50 states and 85 countries across all seven continents.

“I try to be competitive with that,” he says. “I contact guys real quick and try to get some points, it’s short and sweet.”

A bird perches on a radio antenna at Mike Vogler's home in Celestine on May 30.

But even though Vogler enjoys competing for contacts, he also sees the practical benefit that comes with participating in different contests he enters, as it allows him to stay sharp with his tools and increase his proficiency with broadcasting.

“It’s a challenge for me,” Vogler says. “If I can make 10 contacts, then I want to make 20. If I make 20, I want to make 25. It just keeps on going. It’s an opportunity to keep proficient and help yourself out.”

In fact, that’s part of the reason why Vogler and his troupe were out at Patoka that day. They were participating in an amateur event called Parks on the Air, which is a radio contest where hams set up and broadcast in state parks all across the country and compete with each other over who can get the most contacts during that period.

It’s a good chance for hams to not only earn some bragging rights, but to also train and sharpen their broadcasting skills. Patoka Lake has four areas designated for ham radio activity, and Vogler and company are using that time to practice their operating skills, some more successfully than others.

Maffenbeier, 65, of Jasper, is another ham who was at the park for the day’s broadcasting activities. He was able to set up shop out of his pickup truck, which sports a pair of antennas in the back he can adjust manually. He had already made contact with hams from Massachusetts and Minnesota that morning. For him, ham radio is more than just a hobby, it’s an expression of what he believes he was called to do, which is to keep people informed and get the word out as far and wide as possible.

In 1991, Maffenbeier and his wife were listening to the scanner in their car when, suddenly, the sounds and lights of sirens filled the air. The police were going up and down the road warning everyone that a tornado was coming through Petersburg. As the couple tried to scramble for cover, a sobering reality fell over Maffenbeier.

“At that point, what do you do? I turned the scanner on and heard people talking about a tornado in Petersburg. It really put a bug into me that we knew very little of what was going on,” he recalls.

Mike Maffenbeier poses for a portrait with his very high frequency antenna at his home in Jasper on June 4.

After making it through the storm, Maffenbeier took his electronics background and joined the Dubois County Emergency Management Agency. He’s a man who likes knowing what’s going on and spreading as much helpful information as he can, and he thought he could do that best through involvement with emergency management services.

He joined the Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club shortly after its inception because he supports the mission of promoting grassroots radio broadcast activities.

“I see it as an avenue for people to hone their skills,” Maffenbeier says. “Along the way, you make a lot of friends and you learn a lot of things.”

For Maffenbeier, it’s only a matter of when, not if, the time arises when emergency communications are needed. He’s so committed to being ready, he had high-level repeaters and grounders installed at his home so he could be ready to broadcast to the public and emergency responders at a moment’s notice. He remembers what it was like being caught in the open during a tornado and not knowing what was happening around him. He wants to ensure no one else has to experience what that’s like.

“When there’s a problem, I don’t want my friends or family put in a situation of being scared and not knowing what to do,” he says. “I see that as the underlying reason I’m in it.”

Emergency communications and preparedness run through a lot of the activities ham radio operators are involved in. During emergency situations, it can take time to scramble communications together so all the responding agencies can coordinate their efforts and reach those in need. But, ham radio operators can bridge those gaps and reach out to responders after cellphones and other forms of communication fail in the wake of natural disaster.

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, ham radio operators flooded the island and served as some of the first lines of communication between survivors and the authorities in the aftermath. 

But while ham groups are prepared for the worst, most of their normal broadcast activities are strictly recreational.

Hockett, 64, of Ethel, dabbled in ham radio when he was in middle school, but didn’t renew his license until 2012. He has been involved with the Patoka Valley Club for about a year and a half, and estimates that 95% of the guys involved share his view that it’s something fun to do now that they’re older and have lots of time on their hands.

For him, ham radio is the perfect leisure activity that keeps him plenty busy since he retired from the Army Corps of Engineers. Hockett also enjoys the friendships he has cultivated through radio with people he’s never met in person, but he knows their call sign by heart.

“I want to talk,” he says. “It opens up the world. As a kid, I got to hear a lot of things and imagine what was going on everywhere. And that continues.”

Hockett was able to get in his share of talking at Patoka Lake, as he made contact with hams in Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada.

Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club President Mike Vogler poses for a portrait in his amateur radio station at his home in Celestine on May 30.

Eventually, Vogler was able to get his equipment to cooperate on the morning of the Parks on the Air field day, and he made contact with hams in Michigan, Wisconsin and Hawaii. While it was frustrating at first, he chose to look at his earlier troubles as another learning experience on his ham radio journey. The three hams spent most of the afternoon at Patoka, and while they didn’t get as many contacts as they would have liked, the chance to come together to broadcast and work out their equipment issues was fun enough for them.

Vogler still works to spread the message about the existence of the Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club, and enjoys mentoring potential radio rookies and prospects who are flirting with the idea of jumping into amateur radio broadcasting. He encourages those with an interest not to be intimidated by the amount of technical knowledge or equipment needs that come with ham radio participation. Everyone has to start somewhere, and the members of the Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club are more than happy to welcome new members to the airwaves.

“We see a growth,” Vogler says. “It’s getting the word out to people that say, ‘Man, I’d like to get into that.’ We want to be that avenue to get that person motivated.”

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