Before e-mail, a ham in Alabama could sit in his darkened living room and chat with a like-minded operator in France. Before Google Earth – the interactive 3-D atlas – hams were communicating with space stations, satellites, and a group of explorers in Antarctica. Ham radio makes the world small.
"I'm an old-timer by today's standards, and when I first came on, in the '70s, there were a lot of old-timers," says David Drummond, a veteran operator, reclining across the bench at the Chick-fil-A. "It's through older hams" – "Elmers," in ham patois – "that we learned how to talk, to get a radio on air, how to behave once you were on there. You learned the fascination of being able to talk to strangers and new friends with a little of nothing. That was the magic of radio. That's what we pass on."
Today, the Tuscaloosa Amateur Radio Club comprises both older hams, such as Mr. Drummond, and his friend Tommy Howell, as well as several men in their 20s, who are drawn by the reach and freedom of ham radio. (Drummond says women make great hams, but the club does not currently have any on its roster.) "At first I thought it would be just like talking on a cellphone," says Todd Kirby, one of the newest members. "But of course it's not. You get on a repeater, and suddenly so many people can hear you, and you realize that this is a totally different way of communication."
Justin Perry, another young ham, confessed that he didn't think he "was one for just talking. But I'm on my radio all day; I've just got it on. Some of those guys up in Alaska, they're long-winded. When I have time, I'll just sit and talk with them. Talk for hours."