When Larry Elkin of Rio Rancho was going to college in New York, he picked up a radio transmission astronaut John Glenn sent from orbit around Earth.
Now Elkin is president of the High Desert Amateur Radio Club of New Mexico Inc., a local group that aims to educate people about amateur radio operation and is available to help with emergency communication.
“Our club is multi-faceted,” Elkin said. “Emergency communications is one branch of amateur radio. What it does is fill the gap where there is no reliable cell phone or radio communication.”
For instance, search and rescue teams may use amateur radios to communicate in remote areas. Some High Desert Amateur Radio Club (HDARC) members participate in search and rescue.
Also, the club might be asked to operate at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. There, Elkin said amateur radio operators, or hams, may intercept distress calls regular emergency communications people don’t hear.
They would relay that information to first responders.
Hams also monitor emergency communication during disasters so they can step in if they notice problems.
HDARC hasn’t handled emergencies, Elkin said, but it could happen.
Hams on the radio for recreation have picked up distress calls from thousands of miles away, looked up information on who to call and contacted authorities to help.
“You never know,” he said.
Still, the main thrust of HDARC is education. To that end, members give demonstrations at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Explora Children’s Museum monthly adult nights, the New Mexico State Fair and other events.
The club also participates in an annual Field Day, where members operate off the grid with their own antennas and power from generators and batteries for 24 hours.
In addition, club members hold monthly sessions for aspiring hams to take tests for certification.
“Most of us do if for the fun to it, just for the enjoyment,” Elkin said.
The club can help new hams get started setting up their own stations and getting used equipment.
The club has about 115 to 120 members, ranging in age from 10 to 83. Elkins advocates amateur radio as an activity for youth.
“It helps with conversational English or conversational any language with another ham,” he said. “People from all walks of life are hams. And you gain some level of maturity from doing it.”
Even if hams don’t speak the same language, he said, there’s a standard alphabet they use. That alphabet along with numbers given for locations allows them to communicate just enough for an official contact.
Then they can send each other verification cards. Some cards from exotic locations have taken as long as six years to reach Elkin, he said.
Elkin became interested in radio communications at age 13, when he received a portable radio. Living in New York City, he discovered he could tune into particular sports broadcasts scattered throughout the AM bandwidth.
The boy wondered what else he could pick up and started looking for distance reception signals.
About four years later, Elkin read about amateur radio and short-wave radio listening. He persuaded his father to buy him a short-wave radio and threw a thin coil of wire out the window into a tree to use as an antenna, which he wasn’t supposed to have.
Elkin picked up broadcast radio stations around the world. He estimates he was in his late teens when he listened in on Glenn’s broadcast shortly before the media announced it, and NASA’s letter confirming that achievement is Elkin’s most-prized verification notice.
During college, Elkin abandoned the hobby. Ten years after his marriage, his wife suggested he take a class to become an official ham while they were living in Florida. He’s been at it ever since.
In the nine years he’s lived in Rio Rancho, Elkin has contacted 85 countries, some of which even geography teachers aren’t likely to have heard of, he said.
His focus is rare contacts. In fact, with the help of a special antenna, Elkin hopes to contact astronauts on the International Space Station, expanding his radio reach even outside of Earth.
For more information on HDARC, visit nm5hd.com.