Mike Forrence hadn’t really slept in about 27 hours, but the excitement still hadn’t faded from his face.
He sat under a canopy at Remsberg Park in Middletown, twirling a dial on his radio as the sun rose in the sky. The machine crackled and hummed at his touch, sending a signal that hovered high above the mountains on the horizon. It would bounce off Earth’s upper atmosphere, and perhaps also off the ocean, and then – if Forrence was lucky – it would find its way to another passionately sleep-deprived amateur radio operator in a distant corner of the globe.
Members of the Frederick Amateur Radio Club joined hundreds of other groups in celebrating the American Radio Relay League’s annual day this weekend, when operators around the world set up temporary transmitting stations and spent 24 hours or more to get in touch with as many other people as they possibly can.
It’s the holy grail of amateur radio, Forrence said with a smile.
“There are thousands of us coming out, across the country,” he said Sunday morning, gazing skyward and spreading his arms in a gesture of wonder. “Thousands of us. Everyone stayed up all night, because it’s the most wonderful day of the year.
Club members began setting up their equipment – which included a 40ft broadcast tower topped with a 15ft antenna – at 8am on Saturday. Field Day really started at noon.
Forrence sat at the “contact generating” table until 3 a.m. Sunday. Then he “cheated,” he said, taking a nap in his car.
He was back before dawn, which everyone knows is the best time to talk to Europe. (The strength of the sun’s rays affects how radio waves bounce off the atmosphere, making certain times of day better for contacting certain regions.)
FARC members made contact with more than 100 other operators over the weekend, club president Sandy Chesney said. A “ham” – the term for amateur radio enthusiasts – spoke in Hawaii. Another spoke to Slovenia. Last week, club member David Drake said, he made contact with a ham in New Zealand. He has a friend who talked to Antarctica.
“Radio is kind of like magic,” Chesney said.
The group kept track of every Field Day contact in a journal, quickly jotting down the call numbers that whistled into their machines. Interactions usually only lasted a few seconds. “Seventy-three,” they said to each other before signing, an old telegraph code that means “best regards.”
Field Day, which has been going on since 1933, according to the ARRL, is as much about engaging the public as it is about making contacts.
Many clubs like the FARC have set up in parks or other public spaces, Chesney said, so community members can stop and learn about amateur radio. Some people walking through Remsberg Park stopped when they saw the club’s layout and stayed for over an hour, Forrence said.
Although it’s an older form of technology, Forrence said, it still has a place: Amateur radio operators often help first responders during and after a natural disaster.
“If there were to be a power outage or loss of internet or satellite service for any reason, then we could step in,” Chesney said.
Locally, the FARC supports large community events like the Tour de Frederick race, providing communication with organizers and support teams.
But Field Day is a favorite among club members. Besides the rush of making contact with a distant ham, Forrence said, there’s the camaraderie that comes from staying up all night and the gratification that comes from chatting with interested passers-by.
“It’s like Christmas,” Forrence said.