Hamming it up with Lasers and Potato Guns

I traveled to Hamvention reluctantly, dragged along by a buddy of mine who points to learning Morse Code as the crowning achievement of his life. If figured, what the heck, maybe I’d pick up some stereo gear. I nearly left with a laser cannon instead.

My friend’s apartment is filled floor to ceiling with hundreds of pounds – if not several tons – of radios, pulse generators (whatever they are) oscilloscopes and other electronics. If he dared to turn on all this gear at once, I imagine lights would dim all over the United States.

I had dabbled in ham radio as a kid, but I could never get the sense of banging out dits and dahs on a telegraph key when I could just as easily pick up a phone and call someone. What with the Internet, e-mail and Instant Messaging, Morse Code today is about as useful as smoke signals.

But I let myself get talked into hopping on a plane and four hours later we arrived in Dayton, Ohio, where the annual gathering of short wave radio buffs is held.

Hamvention resembles a giant yard sale for geeks. The convention center parking lot was jammed with booths and tables covered with stuff. There were even some radios. Mostly, though, there were antennas, computers, microscopes, cameras, electron tubes, tools, parts, T-shirts, stereos and the occasional Geiger counter, land-mine sweeper and . . .

“Hey, what’s that?” my buddy asked. “It looks like something off the Starship Enterprise.”

He pointed to an elongated, rectangular device, wrapped in cooling tubes and with all sorts of wires dangling from it. It was the size of a howitzer. The nameplate on the side of the device identified it as a copper vapor laser. The price tag read $350.

What is this world coming to, I wondered aloud, when a laser is a yard-sale commodity?

The guy selling the laser explained that he had a smaller one at home and that when he accidentally stepped in front of it his pants burst into flames. This baby was much bigger and more powerful. My friend and I concluded that it would make an outstanding fireplace starter and living room conversation piece, but his wife might not agree. So, with reluctance, we moved on.

At the next booth, a fellow was hawking potato guns. Jam a potato down the barrel, shoot hair spray in the other end, seal it up and ignite it. It fires a potato or other projectile over the treetops, we were told.

We instantly forgot about the laser cannon. We had to have a potato gun.

It was about then that I got a visual of my friend coming home and being greeted by the missus. She would be eager to hear about his trip to the ham radio convention and all we had learned about the world of high technology and international communications.

I imagined the look on her face when she discovered he had returned, instead, with a bazooka capable of hurling uncooked vegetables through the neighbors’ windows.

I’d seen that look before. Like when the cat threw up on her rug. That would be the cat that no longer lives there.

“Uh, buddy,” I said, “I’m not sure this would go over that well on the home front.”

He was bummed, but felt better after he got a high tech slingshot instead.



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