Reflections on lifelong amateur radio friendships

By Chris Codella, W2PA
December 2023

You can’t go home again. 

Originally the title of a 1940 novel by Thomas Wolfe, the saying has come to mean that things inevitably change, the old neighborhood is gone, and its familiarity cannot be recaptured. Is it any different in amateur radio where things change at the pace of technology?

In the May 1917 issue of QST, while all amateur operation was shut down during World War One, ARRL founder Hiram Percy Maxim pondered why we hams seem to form such strong bonds that would naturally make us draw together once again after the war, writing, 

“The romance of sitting alone in a little out of the way room among a lot of instruments, and yet be in communication with congenial spirits in other distant and out of the way little rooms, is conducive to profound and reverent thoughts. The fun which bubbles over from so many of us … is one of the interesting manifestations of the effect of our work upon us.” [1] 

From the earliest days of ham radio there was something different enough to prompt Maxim to take note in his monthly QST editorial.

As kids we made friends in our neighborhood and in school. A few of those friendships lasted but more drifted away as we aged and changed our surroundings and community.  We who grew up with ham radio did this too, but the neighborhood was also the ham bands after school, in impromptu QSOs or on nets, forming groups, adding friends; this was our community. In addition to riding bikes around local streets, we’d ride tuning knobs around the bands looking for the familiar and the new. Friendships formed among “congenial spirits” through daily conversations without any face-to-face meeting at first, mostly within our teenage cohort but also across generations, something distinctly different from the rest of a kid's life.

When my family moved to a different state, I took my friends with me (as my mom described it). That made such changes easier with a bit of stability amid discontinuity. A ham friend from back then cleverly describes that period saying “we all went to different high schools together” – a simple but accurate truth. Then, after high school we all went to different colleges together, too, although one of them also became my first college roommate.  And the university club station was my most frequent hangout. 

Entering the workforce, three or four ended up at the same large tech company with me, but in the broader group we all worked different careers together. I attended several ham friends’ weddings and at my own, four of the six groomsmen and one of the bride's maids were hams. Then, as career and family bloomed, amateur radio faded just a bit into the background for a few short years but was always within view.  As I gradually returned to the bands it was as if I’d never left.

Advancing technology has changed how we do radio, not why. The Internet has made it easier to keep in touch and reconnect with old ham friends. Of course, many of us were networking this way on the bands long before the Internet existed. Over the years, friends who left amateur radio even for decades fit right in again getting advice from those of us who stayed. We pick up where we left off almost like no time had passed at all, to chat about equipment, antennas, DX, propagation, and every non-ham topic under the spotted sun. Greeting each other by name even during the rush of a contest makes me smile. Ham friendships endure as we add new ones, whether we’ve been in the game for decades or not.

As the years tick by and the keys and signals of mentors and some contemporaries fall silent there comes a realization that among all of life’s friends and acquaintances, many of the most important and constant have been the hams. We led different lives together. And still they inhabit my neighborhood by way of my “little out of the way room” and the “instruments” within.

So, yes, things are quite different in amateur radio with human connection at its core. The old neighborhood never leaves us, or us it, because the neighborhood is the bands, the airwaves, the ether. And, at least in our radio world, you can always go home again.

This article is a longer unedited version of a letter submitted to QST magazine and printed in the "Correspondence" section of the January 2024 issue, page 24.

Reference [1]: “The A. R. R. L. Spirit,” Editorial, QST, May 1917, p16.

Copyright © 2023 Christopher F. Codella, W2PA.  All rights reserved.