Rogue Valley Manor Amateur Radio Club member Bob Brouwer dials up a contact in the Manor's radio shack. Member Morris Prosser is in the background. Jim Craven 6/13/2008 - Jim Craven

Hamming it up

The series of cadent bleeps coming through the radio spell out a clear message to the trained ear. "It's a Russian station," says Bob Brouwer, president of the Rogue Valley Manor Amateur Radio Club. "He says it's cloudy there tonight."

Radio amateurs — or hams, as they are affectionately known — use various modes of transmission to communicate, including voice transmission. Brouwer, 88, prefers Morse code, which he has been using since before his Navy days in World War II.

From the radio room on the ninth floor of the Rogue Valley Manor, he taps out messages and waits for responses. "I've probably made contacts in 300 individual countries over the years," says Brouwer, glancing at a large map of the world hanging on the wall. He says that the club's 14 members come and go as they please, using the equipment throughout the day to get a bit of local news from Cape Verde, for example, or a weather update from the Canary Islands.

Radio towers on the roof of the Manor cater to the club. "We're probably the only retirement community in the country with a set-up like this," says Brouwer, whose contacts with hams around the world follow some unwritten rules. "You usually don't talk politics," he quips, adding that conversations are kept "gentleman-like with no profanity."

In fact, most exchanges would hardly even qualify as conversations.

Particularly during weekend contests, when radio operators from Topeka to Tel Aviv compete to see who can make the most contacts, verbosity can be a disadvantage. Limit your message to "73" — that's radio lingo for "best regards," explains Brouwer — if you hope to win a trophy.

At the end of longer contacts, hams will often exchange addresses, and then send each other an acknowledgment card in the mail. The radio room at the Manor is decorated with dozens of these mementos, most of them bearing picturesque scenes from their country of origin: Norway, Malaysia, Spain, Ecuador, Finland ...

Brouwer's favorite card shows a bunch of guys in fur-trimmed parkas smiling proudly. Evidently, the dream vacation for the serious ham operator involves doing what these hardy dudes did: traveling to Peter I Island, near Antarctica, and using the radio station there at the icy bottom of the world to make contacts — 50, 000 to 100,000 in a week, according to Brouwer.

In all countries, amateur radio operators must pass a licensing exam. In America, proficiency in Morse code is no longer required.

"The FCC had the requirement down to five words a minute, and people balked at that. The Coast Guard doesn't even use it anymore," laments Brouwer, who shrugs off the notion that he is helping to keep a dying language alive. He's just an old dog who refuses to learn new tricks, he says.

Eight members of Brouwer's club belong to ARES, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Through periodic exercises in incident management, they prepare to help out with communications efforts during a disaster.

"If all communications are out, including cell phones, amateur operators are the last resort," says Brouwer. "You name the disaster, whether it was 9/11 or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and amateurs have been on the scene. They came out of the woodwork during the Loma Prieta earthquake," which caused great damage to the Bay Area in 1989.

Brouwer was living in Santa Cruz at the time. While in the Navy decades earlier, serving under Admiral Draemel, he found himself right in the middle of another catastrophe.

"I was in my cot after breakfast," he recalls, "and I heard a bunch of running above me." Moments later, he would learn that the Japanese were attacking. The scene was Pearl Harbor.

Brouwer's prowess with Morse code serves as a more pleasant reminder of his Navy experience.

"It keeps the mind going," he says, referring to his amateur radio hobby. "Some people collect stamps. We collect countries."

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at

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