Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ham Radio, Motorcycles, and the Degrading Culture

Last Saturday, a few of us from the Westbank Amateur Radio Club assisted with communications for a Poker Run for the local chapter of the Red Knights.

By way of explanation, the Red Knights are a motorcycle club consisting of active-duty or retired firemen (of both sexes). A Poker Run is a social/fundraising event in which participants ride as a group, stopping at five check points to draw a card. At the end of the circuit, each rider has a poker hand. Prizes are awarded. It's not a race, but rather a leisurely cruise and a chance to meet other bikers. Amateur Radio - also known as "ham radio" - is the name given to the practice of licensed radio operators who run two-way radio stations from their homes or on their persons. Ham Radio is typically a hobby, though in times of crisis or disaster, it proves to be the only means of communication.

Hurricane Katrina convinced me to get involved in ham radio again (I got my license in 1975 at the age of 11, and basically stopped operating after moving out of my parents' house). I'm gradually getting a radio station set up at home once again. I have also joined the local club, for which last Saturday was a public service opportunity. It gave me a little experience in that kind of volunteer communications work. With cell phones, ham radio communications is more of a back-up. But sure enough, cell phones do fail, whereas amateur radio gets the job done in all kinds of conditions. So, I was monitoring my hand-held radio operating on the two-meter band through a repeater (a kind of relay-station that enables a hand-held radio to communicate all over the area) and maintaining communications with hams at the other stops.

Along with Grace and Leo, I spent a good eight hours at a fairground site that was the start and finish of the event (on the property of a local Roman Catholic Church). There were more than 600 motorcycles congregated at the site. There were vendors of food, drinks, and motorcycle gear. Leo got to sit on a bike and play with cicadas in the church/school's playground.

I also got to stroll around and make observations. While I haven't ridden in many years, I actually had a motorcycle license even before a license to drive a car. In other words, I actually had a drivers license that was not valid for an automobile! My dad and I were enthusiastic motorcyclists - having taken many vacations together, as well as managing to ride daily nearly year-round in Ohio (thanks to boots, gloves, and a snowmobile suit). It was fun to see all the bikes.

The Red Knights are good guys. What binds them together - besides their affection for bikes - is their service as firemen. It is not an exaggeration to call these folks unsung heroes. The Poker Run was raising money for the widows and orphans of firemen killed on the job. It just seems like there shouldn't have to have fundraisers for such things - but I suppose the politicians have "better" ways to spend our tax dollars than taking care of these people who take care of us.

One of the Westbank Amateur Radio Club members is himself a Red Knight. I nearly didn't recognize him as he was decked out in his leathers.

Of course, I've always got an ear to the ground of the culture. I do believe what I saw reflects a general coursening of our culture compared to my days as a teenage motorcyclist/ham radio operator.

A lot of the riders had shirts and jackets with openly profane, crude, and vulgar language on them. There were frequent references to parts of the anatomy, sexual commentary, and language that used to be confined to all-male, all-adult gatherings in locker-rooms, dorms, and barracks. Instead, this kind of thing was paraded about in front of families. On one occasion, I saw a fresh-faced little girl of perhaps eight years old (who I believe was a member of the church where the event was being held) skipping past a man (who was probably in his sixties) sporting a sexual reference to the female anatomy on his shirt. Nice.

Nobody seemed to have had any shame. There was no desire to steer the little girl (or any of the children who were present) away from the vulgarity. The folks who had this kind of attire made no effort at all to shield their vulgarity from young eyes. There were also lots of merchandise sporting the most course and explicit language imaginable. There were also tee shirts emblazoned with photographs that bordered on porn. They happened to be displayed at eye-level for the little kids. Nobody batted an eye. There was a time when adult women would not have been subjected to such things - but little girls? And, of course, there is no way of saying anything about it without provoking even more bad language and simply being dismissed as a prude.

Nor was there any sensitivity to the fact that they were on the grounds owned by a church. Members of the congregation (identifiable by their T-shirts) were working on the grounds. I wonder if the parishioners liked their children reading about human biology on the attire of the bikers.

The other thing that was rather unfortunate, in my unsolicited opinion, was the collection of Nazi memorabilia for sale. I realize part of riding a bike is the idea of being a non-conformist - although the "nonconformity" was pretty uniform: boots, jeans, t-shirt, denim jacket, leather vest, and bandanna. The outlaw image notwithstanding, I just don't get the Nazi thing. Maybe its a celebration of cruelty - a glorification of the violent and evil - that seems to make people feel "powerful." I have done a lot, and I mean a lot, of riding in my time, but I've never felt the need to glorify Hitler while doing so [Note to Peter: I get the Godwin Award this time! +HW].

None of this reflects on the Red Knights. Like I said, they are good guys. But I think it does reflect quite a cultural shift in general over the last few years to the point where swastikas and references to genitalia being displayed before the eyes of little girls at public events held on church grounds are seeming so common as to not even warrant raised eyebrows. Things have changed from the days when I was riding a Suzuki 850 to work and chatting with folks around the world in morse code from my dad's basement. Of course, that was some 25 years ago. I can't help but wonder how things will be when my son is 43.

In spite of the unfortunate displays of what has become too "normal" in our culture, I had a great time being surrounded by reminders of my own youth: motorcycles and amateur radio. The event culminated in a parade of firetrucks and bikes. It goes without saying that Lionboy thoroughly enjoyed himself. What little boy wouldn't revel in creeping insects, wailing fire engines, and rumbling motorcycles?

Photos can be seen here and here.

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