Yuma Hamfest 2010, Yuma Fairgrounds: one by one, military aricraft make their landing descent just above our heads as we look up, perhaps with the same curiosity and bloodlust as NASCAR fans at once dreading and anticipating a deadly crash. Last year someone in military garb passed out leaflets at the hamfest, giving bogus orders to keep transmission power to 50 PEP or below on all frequencies. An exhibitor with one side of his family tree in the Marine Corps and the other in the FCC, told them politely, and quite rightfully so, to kiss off, unless this directive came from the FCC or a state of martial law had been declared. They seem to be punishing us as a group for last year’s transgression. Without fail, all day long, all weekend long, we must cover our ears every five minutes.

As soon as I reach the dirt parking lot of the fairgrounds, I recognize Hector’s Mexican call sign on California vanity plates, XE2K (while on American soil, he must sign as WT6J; the Mex call on US plates is a subtle irony.) I’m glad to see he’s here. Hector designs and installs antenna systems of all flavors for a living – data, ham, police, whatever – both in Mexico and in the U.S. Every time I meet him, I get at least one moderately mind-blowing lecture on some aspect of radio I never even knew existed. It’s exhausting, like a 3-hour workout in the gym is exhausting, but the long-term effects are invaluable. To quote a favorite line from a favorite movie, “The man’s enlarged my mind.“ And I’ve barely known him two months. Useful things, like how to use a satellite dish to improve cell phone reception by up to 20dB; how to set up a wireless internet bridge over tens of miles; how to get wire in the air and make it talk. Despite our scientific domestication of the electromagnetic spectrum, antenna theory still has the bulk of its wisdom cloaked in murky black magic. Hector is a brujo. His hidden agenda seems to be to get me active on 6m, the Twilight Zone of the ham spectra. On the elusive cusp of HF and VHF it’s neither fish nor fowl, but it swims and flies.

I don’t really know what to expect. This is my first ham thing. A weekend of overweight, aging men (mostly) and awkward, pimply boy scouts peddling everything from CB garbage to newfangled, sparkly technology some NASA engineers are probably envious of, with the feel of a mad scientist flea market and an American Legion spaghetti dinner, with ambulances, cops, military personnel (retired, for the most part) and a few “young” and bright-eyed freaks like me all played out on the virtually abandoned but carefully manicured fairgrounds that point to a recent past much more prosperous than the present uncomfortably stepping into its shoes. Permanent buildings for livestock, “the arts,” Shriner Clowns, 4H Club, etc. with vast, trimmed green lawns and desperately empty parking lots.

The call-in frequency seems to be dead, but a dutiful yet friendly woman’s voice comes right back at me when I toss out a casual request for a radio check on my HT. Someone has set up a repeater on 2m just for the fest. My first walk through the grounds takes me past several tents with stuff for sale – some antique keyers, decrepit hard drives, a drill press, a shiny Yaesu FT-1000; one large setup has a complete selection of Pb/acid batteries in more shapes and sizes than I even knew existed, plus cable, connectors, tools, vacuum tubes, variable capacitors, military surplus oscilloscope probes vacuum-packed in mylar bricks. In five years, about half the items I see today will be scientific heirlooms worthy of awe and wonder. Today they are still just junk, except to the discerning (and caring) few. Like the portable microbeam scope, ca 1947. Belongs in a museum, but you can have it for $25 without haggling.

In the main hall, I’m guided by some inner force to a vendor selling connecting aluminum/fiberglass poles. $2 each. What? I’ll take all of them, I tell the seller. While he’s busy talking, still trying to sell me on an item I’ve already bought, another buyer grabs the bag out from under me. Too late. I still have a chance to purchase ten of them in a loose pile, just enough to get the two ends of a pathetically low-to-the-ground 80m dipole (my first home-brewed antenna, by the way) a bit higher off the lossy ground. Exactly what I needed, and for twenty bucks.

I’m hooked.

It’s Friday, and the big day is tomorrow. I’m just here to get a basic feel for the event, and to double-check the seminar schedule. There are three or four seminars I’d like to attend tomorrow: Satellite Communications on 2.5mW; Kraft-Ebing Psychopathology of Disaster Sites; Introduction to Deadly Orgone Radiation; Hazmat & You, Post-9/11; Emergency Preparedness for Massive Electromotive Disruption. And of course, there’s the annual Buzzard BBQ.

I make a point of visiting every booth, if only briefly. Most of the exhibitors seem all too eager to tell me everything about every single product or service they’re hawking. Perhaps they’d tell me all about their spouses’ colonic biopsy or a buddy recently gone Silent Key (the most elegant and noble euphemism for death in any field I’ve come across.) But along with the sense that many here are clinging to a long lost glory I can never understand, I can smell the funky, fertile manure of a future about to emerge, bloody and screaming, from the teenage transhuman uterus of the present. In this boneyard of outmoded crystal oscillators, manuals for long-deceased radio circuits and analog forgottenhood, the mind-bending fungus of The Inevitable is developing with a will of its own, the nascent nervous system of an undocumented and unexpected Singularity: a global nerve net consisting of technologically fluent, warm-blooded human beings who know how to communicate, who know how to build transmitters from spare parts scrounged from burned analog TVs and who play well with others, with total strangers, be they from foreign countries, different generations, or distant galaxies.

to be continued….