Kurt Eisenach was about 14 when a friend asked if he wanted to come along to visit with a ham radio operator.
He did. And he was hooked.
Sixty years later, Eisenach is still on the air, as a member of the Northland Amateur Radio Association.
“There are all these dials and lights and meters, and you’re talking all around the world,” the International Falls man said. “It got my interest as soon as I saw it.”
Club members, licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, talk with each other and folks far and wide, and help provide communication services for community events and disaster response.
And they have fun.
The group, which includes about 15 members, meets at least once a week at Hardees in the Falls, to laugh, socialize, and discuss all things radio.
“It’s a real diverse group of people, who have a common interest,” said Alan Sullivan of the Falls. “We’ve got a schoolteacher, an engineer, a retired R.N. And Kevin (Boneske, The Journal sports editor) is from Wisconsin.”
Eisenach regularly talks with a man in Brazil. He has reached scientists and researchers at the South Pole, fellow “hams” from Moscow, and personnel on a nuclear submarine.
Club president Marty Cody said he contacted astronauts on the former Soviet/Russian Mir space station.
Members gathered recently at Hardees spoke by hand-held radio to Bruce Biggins, a former county commissioner and public defender, who was in Oklahoma.
“You meet all kinds of people over the air,” Cody said. “You never know who you’re going to meet. In fact, you could be sitting there talking to some famous person. You might even be sitting there talking to (musician) Joe Walsh, who’s also a ham radio operator. In fact, I have to talked to Joe on the air.”
Cody, former Koochiching County assessor and current coordinator of the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service, said non-commercial amateur radio provides the main communication if everything else – cell phones, land lines, the Internet – fails.
He and a local weather service employee were acting as “spotters,” watching for tornadoes a few years ago, west of the Falls. A twister was forming when they called the National Weather Service office in Duluth.
“And Duluth said ‘Are you sure?’ and the weatherman said, ‘Yeah, it’s coming down right over our heads,’” Cody said.
Biggins and his neighbor, club member Bill (“Tex”) Boelk, Littlefork, can connect to the Koochiching County Repeater System with a repeater set up in Biggins’ basement.
A repeater receives a low-power signal on one frequency and retransmits it on another frequency at a higher power, so the signal can cover a longer distance.
“What I like about this stuff is, this is direct,” Boelk said. “No matter what’s in between me and here or there or whatever, I’m not using anything else.
“When I talk to this guy in Mexico, he’s using equipment he has there, just like I do, and there’s no middle person there,” he said. “It’s direct to him, it’s direct back to me. When I talk to Europe, it’s the same thing. They’re sending a signal directly to me, and I’m sending one back to them. So that’s the neat part of it.”
Boelk said hams talk to each other about hobbies, radio equipment and such while on the air. But weather is a common denominator.
“Kurt was talking to someone in Aruba, and at the time he was talking to him there was 100 degrees difference in temperature from where they were and where Kurt was,” Boelk said. “They found that a little hard to believe: ‘No, it’s not a 100 degrees difference.’ And it was. It was almost 40 below up here, and they’re sitting down there where it’s 70. So there are interesting things that way.”
All ham radio operators have call signs.
Eisenach is still KOHKZ after 60 years. Cody is NONKC, Boelk is KDOQMC, and Sullivan is NONLB.
Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex, is NY6YOS. Joe Walsh is WB6ACU.
Eisenach said that, in ham radio-speak, the number 73 is a telegraphy/Morse code abbreviation for “Best Regards.”
“Be careful,” he said, “if any ham sends you a message with ‘88’ at the end, as that means ‘Love and Kisses.’”