The sound of a generator blended with the chirp of crickets as the evening sun dropped behind trees at VFW Park Saturday.
The usual sight of families taking strolls and picnicking was accompanied by the unusual sight of tall antennas stretching from vehicle roofs, of antenna wires draped high into trees and of tents and tables filled with ham radio equipment and operators.
It was the annual field day for the Pilot Knob Amateur Radio Club, held for the first time in Tonganoxie.
Mac McConnell, president, said the club changed the venue from Fort Leavenworth to Tonganoxie in hopes of sparking public interest in their craft. It worked, he said.
"There were people out walking and people who picnicked near us who came over to look," McConnell said. "The park lent itself to more openness, gave people more access to it. That's what we wanted. We don't want the joy of this to be lost."
According to a club press release, the field day is sponsored by the American Radio Relay League, which is the national association for amateur radio operators. The events allow ham radio operators to demonstrate the communications ability in simulated emergency situations. In the year 2000, 2,100 radio clubs participated.
Nolan Beatty, secretary, said club members gain points for the number of contacts made. Extra points are given for operating on emergency power, passing message traffic, acquiring publicity for the event, setting up an information booth and talking to visitors who come by to watch.
Ric Nelson, one of some 15 amateur radio operators participating in the weekend's event, reported the group's total score came in at 2,268 points, surpassing last year's score of 2,088.
Ready to relay
Rick Reichert, Lansing, who in 1978 was licensed to operate a ham radio, said the club members are often called on to help relay messages during races, such as the Brew to Brew run which goes from Kansas City, Kan., to Lawrence. During the 1993 flood, club members set up shop near the river in downtown Leavenworth to help relay messages for emergency workers. Amateur radio operators still serve an important purpose, he said.
Reichert used the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism at the World Trade Center as an example.
"In New York, part of the problem was that the antennas of the cell phones were located on top of the World Trade Center," Reichert said. "When the amateur radio operators arrived, they were put with the police and firemen so they could coordinate and talk to each other."
The Pilot Knob club is also affiliated with the Leavenworth County office of Emergency Management, and many of the members serve as volunteer storm spotters, Reichert said.
Chuck Magaha, the county's emergency management coordinator, said about half of the county's storm spotters are amateur radio operators.
Not only is their expertise appreciated, Magaha said, but it's a plus that they own and maintain their own radio equipment.
"I always know it's going to be ready at a moment's notice," he said.
Group members hold classes to train others to be ham radio operators. In Leavenworth County, more than 200 people are licensed to operate amateur radios.
"I think it's because we have an active club," Reichert said. "We help others get licensed. We have from an 8-year-old to housewives, we have complete families with licenses."
Reichert, who works at Fort Leavenworth, said his parents and sisters are licensed radio operators.
"So whenever I travel with the military that's how I dial home," Reichert said.
Communication is enhanced by satellites, he said.
"There is an amateur radio group that builds and launches satellites," Reichert said.
Operators showed up at the field day with various forms of equipment.
Nelson said one of his goals is to communicate using the least amount of power.
"I normally work with five watts or less," Nelson said.
Davis Moulden, who is a Leavenworth funeral director, came equipped with three radios and a cell phone built into his car. In fact, he said, when he purchases a new vehicle he keeps his hobby in mind.
"It's becoming harder and harder to put radios in cars because it's difficult to find metal to bolt them to," Moulden said.
Nearby, seated at a table beside a tent, Stephen Black and Dan Rounda, operating on 10- to 15-meter bands, had made only 32 contacts in the first six hours.
Roger Lange, who was working with them, blamed the sparse number of contacts on sunspots.
"Sometimes they make it better, sometimes they make it worse," Lange said. "Today they're not cooperating."
Minutes later the team tallied another score a contact with an amateur radio operator in Ontario.
The group planned to switch to an 80-meter band later on.
"We'll keep our fingers crossed," Lange said. "Hopefully that will be better for us, we'll find out in a couple of hours."
But, said Lange, who has been a ham radio operator for six years, there's a higher goal than obtaining points.
"The main purpose is it's an emergency preparedness exercise," Lange said. "When tornadoes or floods take out the cell phones, the hams come in and fill that gap."