Ham radio has a cult following at Riderwood retirement community in Silver Spring, MD, where a small group of residents led by Gene and Judy Hoenig “ragchews” (the ham jargon for conversing) all hours of day and night with fellow hams worldwide.
Gene first became a ham in 1951. After he came to Riderwood he met other people interested in ham radio and soon created a one-year course to prepare them for the exam needed to pass to get a license. Three people took the course; the number of hams has since doubled.
The Riderwood hams’ transmitting locale is an efficiency apartment on campus in which they have radios and Morse code devices that are more powerful than their hand-held radios. This apartment has wires connecting it to antennas in the attic.
What do the Riderwood hams do with their radios? Mostly, they ragchew in words, or in Morse code, with strangers across the globe whom they encounter throughout the ham radio system.
“I enjoy the ability to talk with people in foreign countries, “said Gene (who is seen ragchewing in a photo by resident Arnie Adams). “There is also a public service aspect of ham radio that is appealing.”
Gene met one man by ham radio who is living 100 miles north of Stockholm, Sweden, who asked Gene for information about a grapevine expert in Geneva, New York. Gene got the information. Contacts were made and, as a reward, the Swedish man sent wine to Gene months later.
In another case of ham contact, Gene’s communication with a woman in Jacksonville, Florida, led to Gene and his wife Judy being invited to a vacation cruise on her family ketch boat in the Bahamas.
Ragchewing is generally what the Riderwood hams and their international counterparts do while on the radio when they're not contesting, testing equipment, bouncing signals off the moon or meteor showers, providing communications in national emergencies, sending still or moving pictures or text back and forth, or connecting to packet radio network.
Hams historically have helped with communications during such events as the United States invasion of Granada, the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center towers, and the Johnstown flood in 1936.
There is the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, with local emergency coordinators and members who have registered “for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes.