Before cellphones, there was amateur radio.
Amateur radio gave people like Sandy, a postal worker, and her husband, who was a truck driver, a way to talk to each other while he was on the road.
It also has opened the doors for friendships, both locally and worldwide.
Saturday, some of those friends will get a chance to meet face-to-face as amateur radio operators, called hams, make their way to the Burke County Fairgrounds for the 22nd annual Catawba Valley Hamfest.
“Many come to meet those who talk to them over repeaters and [ high-frequency ] radio,” said Tom Taylor, who has was the founder of Hamfest in 1998.
The festival, which opens at 8 a.m., will feature vendors selling new, used and antique amateur radio equipment, Taylor said.
Hamfest isn’t just for hams, Taylor said.
“People interested in becoming a ham can inquire at Hamfest or any club,” Taylor said. “Free classes are offered and testing is available.”
The festival will feature forums on topics like digital mobile radio, weather watching and newer high-frequency digital radio, Taylor said. There also will be amateur radio license testing at the event.
Tickets for the event are $5 at the door and $4 if purchased in advance from a club member.
A raffle will be held for a Icomm IC-7100 as the grand prize, a Dual Band Mobile Transceiver as the second prize and a Baofeng UV-82 Dual Band Handheld as the third prize. Additional tickets for the raffle will be sold inside the gate at the prize drum for $1.
The Burke Mobile Command Post and Burke REACT trailer will be at the event.
Taylor, who might be better known as his call-sign KC4QPR, has always respected amateur radio operators.
“I always admired that as a sign of intelligence,” Taylor said. “I always thought you had to be real smart to be [an amateur radio operator], but you don’t.”
Taylor, who was an electrical engineer and communications officer in the Air Force, had always wanted to get his license to be an amateur radio operator, but he just didn’t have time to study while he was in the military.
“I never had time to study [Morse] code, which was required then,” Taylor said. “When I moved back to North Carolina in ’85, my last teaching position was in Polk County. Going to and from work, about 40 minutes each way, I studied code tapes until I learned the code.”
Taylor’s love for amateur radio stemmed from a shortwave radio he used to listen to a Russian station at Christmas.
When Taylor got his amateur radio license, he dived in headfirst.
“I’m in it about as heavy as anybody can be in amateur radio,” Taylor said.
As a ham, Taylor has seen the service used for anything from making friends around the world to backing up emergency communications operators in dire situations.
“Amateur radio is not just for fun,” Taylor said. “They do it to back up communications for anybody else, including local EMTs, EMS, the police, the fire stations.”
Taylor described helping with a forest fire in Spruce Pine.
“They put out the call [ that ] they needed amateurs up there,” Taylor said. “I went up and worked several days on that fire offering backup communications to the forest service.”
Hams also supported the recent flood exercise hosted in Burke County, Taylor said.
Amateur radio can be crucial in emergencies, said Mike Willis, Burke County fire marshal and emergency services director.
“If everything else fails, there will always be a way for amateur radio to communicate with other people,” Willis said. “They can communicate long distances …. Especially during disasters, their help and input and expertise is tremendous on the emergency services, because if we lose all of our traditional capability, telephones, internet, our current radio systems in whatever way, amateur radio operators can still work through shelters, through us, and relay messages back and forth to families … They’re very critical to what we do.”
Taylor said he hopes young people will invite the challenge amateur radio offers.
“It’s a mental challenge,” Taylor said. “They can even design their own equipment… [and] it’s a chance [for young people] to be of service to their community.”
Taylor even offered to donate a handheld radio for anyone younger than 16 who gets an amateur radio license.
“It’s really an amazing thing,” Taylor said.