the coming eclipse of public service radio?

Amateur radio was probably at the peak of its popularity in the 1960’s.  The lay-public knew a lot about us because we were so big.  In popular culture you’d hear about the ham in neighborhood who had that big antenna thing and who talked to Timbuktu all the time.  And so we did.  And it was especially well known that we handled civil crises routinely.  We bailed out a lot of lives in Hurricane Carla in 1962, for example, the worst storm in Texas history.  Because we could do things like this, the Red Cross was happy as ever to renew its formal personnel-sharing arrangement with the American Radio Relay League, a pact which had been in place since 1940.   For our part, we trimmed our sails a bit.  The traffic-handling AREC and the NTS networks combined in 1964, to form the much more streamlined Amateur Radio Public Service Corps.  This was for peacetime work; there were special war plans in place, under the rubric ‘RACES’.

It wasn’t out of vanity (entirely) that hams hastened to stricken places.  Amateur radio was still sometimes genuinely necessary, in remote areas especially.  In New Zealand, 71 year-old ZL1ANI saved his own life by summoning help 35 miles off after he’d had a heart attack.  In Chile, CE3OX and CE3IW spent 18 hours working American stations to find (successfully at last) some rare plasma for a local 7-year-old hemophiliac who needed it.  Our ability to respond to trouble was so good that there were occasional false alarms.  WA4LQN listened one day while his QSO partner W5HTV mobile happened onto a crowd of people surrounding someone supine and wet on a river bank.  There were two minutes of silence while he jumped out of his car to offer the rescuers communications help.  Everything was fine.  He had gallantly interrupted a baptism.

Subtly, for all of this, our role in public service was beginning to change.  Perceptive observers could see that we were not going to be as crucial a channel of civil communications as we had been forever.  Some of us sensed this, judging by hectoring admonitions on magazine editorial pages to Stay the Public-service Course.  The process at work was probably not our slackening attitude toward service, so much as our awareness of the growing availability of new modes and pathways of communication.  There were some obvious signs of change, such as faced David T. Geiser, WA2ANU, assistant radio officer in Oneida County, New York, when he was charged with the task of setting up a CD station: it was to work on 10 and 11 meters.  The CB operators had gotten active lately in scouting for local trouble and finding help.  A less obvious clue to change was in our traffic numbers, the free messaging system that we offered like telegrams.  Yes, there were still ARRL radiogram forms zigzagging across the country.  But what of the 1964 peak in traffic net registry?  There were 709 of them on League books.  A year later it was down to 578.  Were we being displaced by CB, or by the humble telephone?  Perhaps it was a far-sighted amalgamation, of the NTS and the AREC.

Still, for the moment, public service was mostly our domain.  We were public-spirited in general.  The Single Sideband Radio Association in New York City troubled to donate a complete ham station to the St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, for example.  They’d already done the same for the Braille Technical Press.  For these last few years, anyway, our civil service ethic obtained just like it always had, in the same ponderous style that someone like the young David Sarnoff would know.  There was the Cosmo G. Galkins Memorial Award, for example, for Michigan hams who had done the most during the year for ham radio in their state.  Just that—even the name—would soon appear slightly antiquarian.  Things were changing.  Just listen to how Herman Munster has to justify his own on-air activity to his family.  (W6, by the way, is the right prefix for California.  The rest of that call sign is a carefully non-standard format, belonging you can bet to noone. )

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