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Amateur radio club surfs the airwaves

Ron Biedenkapp sat at a picnic table Saturday under a tent pitched in the middle of Mitchell Field. A steady rain pelted the roof above his head as he gently turned the knob of a ham radio set, listening for voices.

"I can't hear a thing," he said. "I'm gonna go home and get my headphones." He picked up the microphone and spoke to the void.

"CQ, field day. CQ, field day," he said. "WC2G, call."

The static crackled and then cleared. "Mexico Golf Charlie, south Florida, call."

Biedenkapp responded. "Roger, south Florida. We're up here in north Florida, New Port Richey."

"Hey, that's not a bad deal," said the faraway voice. "At least we're getting something."

The contact was one of the hundreds expected to be made during the 24 hours of the Suncoast Amateur Radio Club's annual field day event. About 40 "ham" radio enthusiasts braved the weather Saturday to set up antennas, tune their sets and begin listening for other participants from across the country and around the world.

Laura Morello, SARC president, said the pouring rain Saturday was a plus. "It's an advantage," she said. "If the sun were shining and it was 98 degrees, everybody would be complaining. Let's face facts: This would be the kind of weather we would face in an emergency."

Field day events are designed to highlight the usefulness of amateur radios for emergency communications, Morello said. "I think, when (Hurricane) Andrew hit, a lot of people realized how important ham radios are. There has been a real big boom on people getting their ham licenses.

"Our goal is to get as many people as possible aware of ham radio," she said.

The event is kind of a contest in which the operators try to make as many contacts as they can in one day. Each operator logs the contact _ with a call sign (like WC2G), location and time _ and SARC vice-president Marv Borngraber tallies them up at the end. Voice contacts, like Biedenkapp's, count for one point each.

Morse code contacts count for two points each. Club member Tom Burgoon sat in a trailer Saturday listening for the countless dits and dahs that spell out the call signs of operators from other places. "The farthest I've gotten is Arizona, so far," he said.

Don Nystrom is the club's expert on satellite communications. By bouncing signals off antennas in space, he can send Morse code, voice, or even computer transmissions. "You're able to talk to about half the Earth," he said. "I've talked to Sweden, Japan, Australia . . . If the shuttle goes by, you can talk to the shuttle, too."

Seventy-four-year-old Mimmie Weidlich _ "I'm the Grandma," she proclaims _ has been a "ham" for nearly five years now and has reached the rank of extra, the highest level. "I became a ham at 70," she said.

"I love to talk _ and it's from talking all over the world that I've met such wonderful hams. . . . Israel, Tasmania, you name it, I've spoken to them."