“I’m KD5YS,” says Houston “Tinker” Polson, the speaker for Winnfield Rotary’s November 24, 2021 meeting. In other words, this combination of letters and numbers identifies his FCC license, or his callsign, allowing him to legally operate on Amateur Radio frequencies. He calls himself a “ham,” an amateur radio communicator, and he holds the Amateur Extra license—amateur radio’s highest operating level.
Houston grew up in North Carolina, graduating from North Carolina State University with bachelor’s degrees in textile chemistry and technical education. He received a commission in the Air Force where he served on active duty and in the reserves for 30 years, attaining the rank of a full colonel. During his time in the reserves, Col. Polson served as business faculty in multiple colleges. He was a professor of business and Dean of the Harold Walter Siebens School of Business at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake Iowa.
Col. Polson retired from the Air Force in 2005. He was also in the civil service for 12 and a half years, serving as deputy division chief of training and education at NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and USNORTHCOM (United States Northern Command), as the director of the higher education program with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), and as project manager in a joint Department of Defense and State Department diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia.
Polson has been a “ham”—that is, he has held a license from the FCC—since 1984. His interest in ham radios began when he was a youngster, and he tinkered around trying to get signals from far away radio stations for a greater variety of entertainment. Then he learned he could actually talk to people that far away. The distance and variety of reception appears to be the feature that attracts amateur radio enthusiasts to this pastime.
The name for amateur radio operators became hams apparently as a disparaging reference by professional operators to inexperienced, unskilled, clumsy radio operators. The term has been in use since around 1910 or so, when amateur use of radio frequencies began. Since 1910, licensed ham radio operators have grown to over 821,000 in the United States and about three million around the world.
Amateur radio operation is considered a service by the federal government, which regulates it under its authority over interstate communication. Ham operators can provide communication in our area when all other means of communications such as cell service and telephone wire service fail. There is a local group of trained emergency communication amateur radio operators who provide communication services in hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather emergencies. Amateur radio operators provide communications for large events such as state fairs, air shows, state track meets. Ham operators also educate others with less knowledge and expertise than they have, and they experiment with improvements in the technology, like digital and computer communications via radio frequencies.
The most common use by far is what hams call rag chewing—talking. It seems communication competition is part of the attraction of amateur radio operation; competitions are held to see which operator can communicate with someone the farthest from his location, and to see which can communicate with the most diverse locations around the world or at specific locations in the United States, or with the most individuals within a specific length of time. The timed competitions can run from three hours up to six months.
Ham radio is even used to allow children in school to talk to astronauts on the space shuttle. While people communicate on radio technology by voice or Morse code still, more modern technology has expanded methods of ham operation, including digital communications, internet connections, and other computer programs. The cost and complexity of ham radios also run the gamut, from a simple $25 radio on Amazon to a more sophisticated portable radio for use in vehicles that costs around $400 to a desk top radio for use at home.
There are three levels of licenses for ham operators, beginning with the technician’s license which costs $35 and requires a rudimentary knowledge of radio and electric principles and operation, going up to the general license which requires passing another exam and another fee of $35, and then up to the Amateur Extra class, which requires a much more thorough knowledge of communication and operation of ham radios as well as passing the tests for the underlying licenses.
Much information about ham radios, licensing, and radio communication resources can be found on the website of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for Amateur Radio in the U.S. The basic website information is accessible to anyone, with additional resources available to members of the association, including training courses, licensing information and technical information.
The meeting was, as usual, concluded with the Rotary motto, “Service above self!”