Every August, starting when I was six or seven, I went with my dad to a “hamfest”. Amateur Radio, which is also called “Ham Radio” for reasons I should know but don’t, is a hobby thousands of tech enthusiasts have pursued over the past century. Amateur radio operators, who are called “Hams”, hold these hamfests throughout the year to sell their used radio gear and other electronics. Think of a hamfest as an electronic flea market, a Montana Charlie’s for geeks.
Was I ever all that interested in these hamfests? No, not really. Did I ever buy anything electronic or radio-related? I don’t think so, other than vacuum tubes for my guitar amp, perhaps. I do have a Ham Radio license (my call sign is KA9WFR), and I passed the test for it at a hamfest I attended with my dad. Really, I did it for him, in the same way kids go out for football because their dads want them to. Even up to a few years ago, I intended to pursue a higher classification of license as a Father’s Day present to him. Why didn’t I? Lack of time of course. It’s always lack of time.
My dad died about 18 months ago now. I seldom give that much thought, because life has no shortage of other unpleasantries to keep one’s mind occupied. But I made time last August to keep up the tradition of going to our hamfest, and I did so again this morning.
I can’t really describe how going to these things makes me feel. It’s an odd combination of anger that his clandestine chain smoking cut his life short by twenty-five years, sadness that he couldn’t be there with me (even though we spent most of the time walking through the aisles of electronic junk in silence), boredom because there is really nothing there that interests me much, and an unrequited but incessant curiosity concerning how much better things would be if he were still around.
I guess the overwhelming feeling I felt was emptiness. That’s often all that emerges when a cacophony of emotions hits me at once. I felt as empty as the exhibit hall which, in earlier years, used to be filled from one side to the other with vendors selling their gear. Today, an entire half of the hall was completely empty.
This didn’t happen all of a sudden. The crowds have been shrinking and aging for at least the last 15 years. I suppose it’s ironic that my field is largely responsible for the slow death of this hobby. It’s hard to convince a kid today that these large, heavy, heat-radiating radios and their tall, ugly antennae are as cool as their smart phone and bluetooth headset. It certainly was hard for my dad to convince me that his hobby was anywhere nearly as interesting as my Commodore 64 and its Prodigy dial-up.
Technology marches on. Hobbies and interests come and go. What used to be cool is now undesirable and outdated, a relic for someone’s nerd museum.
Likewise, people who once were in your life are no longer there. Unlike technology’s conquests, however, what mortality claims can’t ever be replaced. And that just leaves me feeling … empty.
I’ll keep going to these hamfests as long as they continue to have them. I just wish he could still go with me.