Once you've passed the Novice test and decided how you want to equip your station, there are some general points to keep in mind when setting up your gear:
* Safety: There should be plenty of electrical outlets, preferably the three-prong grounded outlets. If the room has few outlets, use a commercially made outlet strip at the operating table rather than a nest of extension cord, to bring electricity to your equipment. Parts or circuits carrying any form of electrical current, whether DC, AC, or radio frequency, should be covered to prevent shocks. The voltage and current levels in many pieces of radio equipment are dangerous.
All equipment, from the code key to the transmitter, should be connected to a good ground as a precaution against shocks: Ideally, the equipment should be connected to one or more six-foot ground rods driven into the earth. Use heavy gauge copper wire or strips of copper flashing to make the connections. Short of that, connection to a cold-water pipe will suffice.
Antennas should never be erected near utility power lines, nor should they be erected when a thunderstorm is nearby. To the extent possible, route the antenna transmission line so that it's out of the reach of passersby. The line should have either a lightning arrester or a switch that will let you disconnect your radios and ground the antenna lead when a thunderstorm approaches.
* Location in the home: Try to set up the station in a relatively secluded part of your home. This way, you won't disturb others, and they won't disturb you. One good location is in a basement or ground-floor room. These places afford easy access to an earth ''ground.'' Another alternative is an attic: It's closer to the antenna, so the transmission line can be kept short, but it's also farther from an acceptable grounding point.
* The operating table: The chief concern here is operator comfort. Equipment should be placed on a shelf high enough so that the tuning dials or displays are at eye level. And there should be enough room to rest your entire forearm on the table when using the telegraph key. There should be plenty of drawer space to store paper, pencils, and station logbooks, which you'll use to record your station activities. One possibility is to use an unfinished door supported at each end by filing cabinets (used ones, if you're a good bargain hunter).
Once your Novice license has arrived and your equiment is hooked up, it's time for the moment of truth: your first contact.
''My first contact? It was kind of exciting and rather scary, confusing. I had trouble figuring out what they were saying and what I was supposed to say,'' says Stephen K. Sorton, KA0GFA. ''But once you make a few contacts, it gets exciting!''
Stephen, whose father has been an amateur radio operator for 27 years, earned his Novice license in 1979 at the age of 12. He upgraded to General class last July.
''My hands were shaking, I didn't know I could do it,'' says Tobi Fisher (KA9 MMY). ''My first few contacts, I told them I was new. They gave me a lot of encouragement.''
That's a key point: Don't hesitate to tell other stations you're a newcomer. If the other station is sending code too fast, ask the operator to slow down. It's a more effective way to keep the contact going than if you tell the other station you missed the transmission because of static or interference. This forces the other operator to repeat information - probably at the same speed used before.
Mrs. Fisher adds that it's helpful to have an experienced ham with you the first time you go on the air. In her case, her husband Gary (K9WZB) coached her along.
''Rag-chewing,'' holding long chats with other stations, is probably the first activity most hams try. But it doesn't take long for rag-chewing to give way to public service work, contesting, and DXing (contacting foreign countries) , just to name a few.
To many hams, DXing holds the most intrigue and excitement.
''A contact with a friend in England, G3MFQ, was my first real DX station,'' says Mrs. Fisher. ''Then one day, just out of the blue, I talked to KP2A/KP1, a DXpedition to Navassa Island in the Caribbean! They had just moved into the Novice bands, and I just happened to be there when they put out a call!''
One reason for her enthusiasm - even seasoned DXers' went after the Navassa station with gusto - is that contacts with the island, a speck of land between Haiti and Jamaica, are rare. Only when ham radio operators travel to the island and set up a temporary station there (a DXpedition) can contacts with it be made.
Handling traffic - third-party messages from people all over the country - also is popular. Novice traffic networks often give new operators their first exposure to amateur radio public service work.
Sitting in front of radio gear tucked in a corner of a third-floor bedroom, Jim Hatherly (WA1TBY) tunes around to find the First Region Net, which handles traffic to and from the New England states.
As he zeroes in on the 7:45 p.m. net, the high-pitched staccato of Morse code fills the room. ''That's Milt,'' he says with a grin, on hearing the call sign of a station checking into the net. ''He's a retired banker down in Connecticut.''
He explains that, in general, nets are organized into four tiers, each covering a broader swath of territory than the previous one. Nets meet according to a strict time sequence, repeated four times a day. At the highest level are the area nets, each covering about one-third of the coast-to-coast distance across the United States and Canada.
According to the latest listing from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national organization for amateur operators, there are 46 Novice nets around the country.
''I've done a little bit of traffic work,'' says Stephen Sorton. ''It's a good way to increase your code speed and meet new people.''
One event high on almost every ham's calendar is Field Day, sponsored by the ARRL each June. It's a contest with a serious purpose. Individuals or clubs operate during a weekend, usually from an outdoor site, and try to contact as many other stations as possible. Bonus points are given for, among other things, operating from noncommercial power sources such as diesel generators or solar panels tied to storage batteries. The exercise is designed to test amateur radio operators' ability to operate under emergency conditions. And there's plenty of room in the event for Novices.
While these are just a smattering of the many activities open to new hams, there's one that shouldn't be left out: preparing to upgrade to a higher license class. Once you get beyond the Novice license, you can use voice, radio teletype , satellites, and TV, in addition to code. Once you can roam outside the Novice bands, you'll be exposed to a whole new world of communications. And you'll meet a wide range of new people on the air.
Says Mrs. Fisher, who upgraded to General less than two months after she got her Novice license last February, ''My first voice contact as a General was with a fellow in Oregon who has been written up in National Geographic. His farm has some dinosaur relics on it. He was really interesting to talk to!''