The 1976 Explorer Road Rally
It was the spring of 1976, and our Explorer post (621) had been asked to provide communications support for the upcoming Boy Scouts of America sponsored Road Rally. If you have never been on a road rally, what it basically boils down to is that it's a "race", not of sheer vehicle speed, but of problem solving and navigational ability. Each team is given a set of clues which they must figure out in order to find the correct roads and then navigate through a series of checkpoints and ultimately finish the course. The winner is chosen from the team which can accomplish this challenging feat first. While this activity can be both intellectually challenging and fun at the same time, there was also the potential for problems. Participants could become lost, become stuck on a soft shoulder, involved in an accident, or have a flat tire or some other car trouble. This is where we were supposed to come in. Our job was to travel along the route and assist stuck or hopelessly lost participants, or to report any other "incidents" back to the command center who would then call for further assistance. Sounds simple enough right? Well, if things worked out the way they were supposed to, there wouldn't be much of a story to tell would there? And believe me, there is a story here.
The real meat of this story began as the time for the event was drawing close, and we were in the final planning stages for our upcoming task. We had been told that the rally was to cover a good portion of Montgomery, and some of Chester counties in S.E. Pa., comprising an area of at least a 7 or 8 mile radius from the center, so we needed to make sure that we had the means to maintain reliable communications using our CB radios. Since the typical average legal power AM CB range from a base to a mobile traveling through rolling hills, was generally less than 10 miles, we knew we would be in for some challenges at the extreme ends of the course. Adding to that potential difficulty, was the fact that our "command base" (to be located at the Valley Forge B.S.A. council headquarters) was not centrally located within the course itself. These logistical problems were further compounded by the fact that we were rapidly approaching the time of the year when the atmospheric skip propagation was becoming a regular daily occurrence, and the noise and interference that it created, would further reduce our reliable local range. With these factors all too apparent in our minds, we pooled our available equipment, and our resources, and tried to come up with a combination of equipment, as well as a workable strategy, which would adequately serve our purpose. We planned to have 4 mobiles; LIM, Blonde Beauty, Cougar, and Dead Soldier. I was riding shotgun with LIM, working the radio and pulling duty as his navigator. Each of the other mobiles were also 2 person teams with a driver and a navigator along to assist. Mitch elected to be the operator of our base station at the command center. Since we lacked the commercial hardware for setting up an efficient temporary base antenna (This was not a job for a simple wire dipole strung between two trees), Dead Soldier used his skills in carpentry to build a quick setup fold-over tower out of 2X4's, a plywood base, and 30' of Radio Shack steel mast. On the top of that, he mounted a Shakespeare "Big Stick" antenna which he borrowed from his dealer stock. The base of the tower was anchored to the ground, and the whole contraption was further held in place by ropes tied off of each corner and anchored to the ground. Dead Soldier also donated his Midland 13-898b to use as the command base radio. Since we knew we were going to have problems with range, I donated the use of my Contex 6706, 65 watt base amplifier for a little extra kick. Blue Bandit, while not a part of the club, offered me the use of his ABC 50 watt mobile amp. I also brought along my TRC-47 SSB radio to use in LIM's mobile. The plan was that we would use AM normally and switch to SSB, if needed, for improved range. Since LIM and I were the only ones equipped with a mobile SSB rig, and with extra power, we were given the most distant sector to patrol, with the other 3 mobiles handling the closer areas. The plan seemed workable, at least in theory, and it would appear that we had all bases covered as far as the equipment was concerned. So at that point, we were fairly confident that we were ready.
But we were about to find out that reality rarely resembled theory.............
The day of the event finally arrived. It was a typical cool, brisk, and sunny early spring day. It was nearly a picture perfect day for holding an event like this. The nice weather did much to set an initial tone of optimism, despite the logistical problems we were facing. We had set up the command post the night before, and things were running fine there. The event was scheduled to begin from the King Of Prussia Plaza and we all met up there early to test our equipment and make any final tweaks. While we were checking the SWR on LIM's mobile with the 50 watt amp running, we managed to burn a hole in the plastic cap on the top of his antenna, as well as giving him a nasty R.F. burn while he was investigating the problem, and I inadvertently keyed the mic. We had also unknowingly shot ourselves in the foot in the quest for optimal range, because while we might have had 50 watts of power, we were putting all that power into an inefficient gutter-mounted 18" fiberglass whip. What power advantage that we may have had, was negated by the short antenna. Also my TRC-47, while being a good working SSB radio, had modulation problems on AM, so we had to physically switch between it and LIM's Midland 13-830 when we changed modes. If you're starting to get the idea that this was a Frankenstein radio kludge gone horribly wrong, you would not be far off. If that were not enough, to add insult to injury, we also found out that morning that we were not the only group providing communications. A group of local hams were there with their 2 meter HT's, and were supposed to be relaying information about the rally participants as they arrived at the various checkpoints. A couple of the hams walked by and couldn't resist the temptation to belittle our setup, and to throw in the fact that "linears" were illegal, and how much easier it was for them to use their hand-held radios and 2 meter repeater to do what we needed all that power to do. Talk about rubbing salt into the wound. But never one to pass up the opportunity to be a smart-ass, I countered by asking them what they would do if the repeater suddenly went off the air. I added that you never could know what might happen when you had to rely on someone else's equipment to do the job for them. We didn't have that problem. Touche! Attitudes, like what I encountered on that day, were one of the reasons why I waited for as long as I did before taking the plunge into ham radio.
The snarky hams were the least of our problems though. Our major red flag issue was that the event was about to start and we had absolutely no idea where we were supposed to go. How could we let this happen, you might ask? Well the first hint that there might be a few bumps in the road (literally as well as figuratively) occurred when the big day drew close. As a matter of course, to help us better plan our routes, we had requested a map of the course a week or two in advance from the rally organizers. At first, they ignored our requests. Then when we pressed, citing concern for security (and in retrospect a likely lack of trust in us), they stalled, tap danced, and came up with a litany of excuses for not providing the map ahead of time. They were obviously concerned with the potential for cheating, and didn't want to take any chances. But by delaying our request, we ended up meeting at the starting line on the morning of the event, totally in the dark about where we were supposed to go. We couldn't even head out to our "sectors" in advance to prepare and to become acquainted with the potential pitfalls of the area. We finally managed to get the map mere minutes before the rally was supposed to start. Great! Now we had to get to our positions on the fly, barely ahead of the rally participants, and without the chance to familiarize ourselves with the course first. To make matters even worse, the map they provided us was a poor blurry photocopy (in 1976, photocopiers were not all that great yet) of a typical gas station road map, with the course marked with a fat tipped magic marker. The marker obliterated many of the street names, (the ones which weren't already unreadable due to the poor resolution of the photocopier) which made it hard to follow the course properly. At this point, we figured that we might actually stand a better chance by just trying to figure out the clues like the rally participants, but that would hardly put us in a position to help people, if we were not in the area before most of the participants had already gone through.
Well, as they say, "the show must go on." So, ready or not, the rally soon started and each of us were doing our best to follow the "map" while using the clues to try and fill in the spots that we couldn't figure out from the blurry map. Even with our "skills" and the map in hand, we still made many wrong turns. As LIM was prone to do when he was stressing out, he was cursing in Italian as we made our many U-turns. It's a good thing that gas was still well below $1 a gallon back then.... As the morning wore on, predictably, the noise level from the atmospheric skip started increasing, and maintaining contact became increasingly more difficult, not that we had anything meaningful to report though. At some point, we opted to move to Channel 22A, a non-authorized channel which we all had, and where there should potentially be fewer people, and therefore less skip interference. This move seemed to be a good call initially, and we were able to maintain decent contact for the near term. But even though our radio equipment appeared to be working, it was apparent from the onset, that we were not very effective at our assigned jobs because we kept getting lost. Without a clear map, and the chance to take a practice run through the course before hand, we were really not that much better off than the rally participants themselves. We spent more time trying to figure out where we were, than we did looking for lost participants to help. In fact, in all likelihood, the rally participants were probably through the checkpoints before we found them. As we got further out from the command center, we started having problems communicating, even with both amplifiers running. Switching to SSB helped, but since none of the other mobiles had it, we couldn't remain there for long. An hour or so into the event, we ran into yet another problem. A semi-local group of people started talking on 22A, presumably to get away from the skip just as we had, which made it even harder for us to communicate. We then made the mistake of attempting to claim priority for the channel because we were doing a public service. Then, to add even more fuel to that fire, when the other group wasn't buying our claim, Dead Soldier piped up and stated that we were sponsored by the Civil Defense. I guess he thought that evoking the name of such an official entity was sure to carry some weight, and it was somewhat true considering that our Explorer post was indeed sponsored by them. But the road rally itself was not an official civil defense function, and we weren't actual card-carrying members of the CD either. I guess the irony of trying to claim an illegal channel for an official public service must have escaped us as well. But what's one small technicality anyway when you're trying to muscle your opponents off of the channel? At least it sounded good at the time. After all, all's fair in love, war, and the total domination of the CB band Muhahahaha!......... Woah, I'd better stay away from those strange looking mushrooms........ Now where was I? As I was saying, we did what we thought we needed to do to make our case. But as it turns out, our seemingly clever tactic would come back to haunt us later on, but I'm getting ahead of myself. As it was, one of the guys from the "intruder" group challenged our claim that we were conducting "official" CD business on an illegal channel, and things got a bit heated after that. We ended up returning to SSB, in an attempt to drive the intruders off of the channel, or at the very least give us the ability to hear though them better. Eventually the other guys grew weary of our SSB activity and moved on which allowed us to resume some sort of reliable communications. We mentally high-five'd each other for having come out of the skirmish victorious. But little did we know at the time, but the battle cost would be much higher than we first thought, and that we hadn't heard the last of this.......
Finally, after a few wild and crazy hours of exploring the scenic back roads of Montgomery and Chester counties, the event ended. It had finished without any of us managing to assist a single participant, which may have been more a reflection of the skill of the participants, as opposed to the seeming lack of competency that we had apparently demonstrated. We never even stumbled across a single checkpoint along the course. Even when we tried to put a good face on the whole thing, it did seem that the participants were more adept at following the clues than we were at following a (admittedly poorly copied) map. We really felt like idiots and that we screwed up big time even though it wasn't entirely our fault considering the rally planners' failure to provide us with an advance copy of a readable map. And to be totally honest, as an afternoon outing, we had a fun time anyway. Mitch had been smiling a little more than usual, which may have had something to do with a certain female companion who kept diverting his attention from the radio throughout the afternoon. But as bad as we felt about our relative worth during this event, our real trouble was only just beginning. During our regular club meeting the next week, while we were still licking our wounds and trying to rationalize the reasons why things didn't work out as well as they should've, the shit hit the fan. It seems that one of the guys that we had tried to blow off of Channel 22A, by claiming to be involved with the Civil Defense, actually knew someone within the organization and had made some calls and inquiries. It didn't take them long to put two and two together and figure out who we were. The Civil Defense people, needless to say, were not happy with us using their name without authorization (especially on an illegal channel). They came very close to dissolving their sponsorship of our group, and kicking us out of the building where we held our meetings. It was only thanks to the strong connections that our ham advisors had with the CD and RACES, who then played damage control for us, that they reluctantly allowed us to stay on. The CD guys were never enamored with us from day one, and we always felt like we were skating on even thinner ice after that. It was probably no coincidence that we were never asked to provide communications for any other event from then on. Oh well, live and learn.
So I chalked this one up as another one of those lessons in life. As in life itself, nothing really good is ever had without a bit of bad thrown into the mix, and learning from your mistakes is what gives us wisdom. That contrast is what also gives one perspective. And it's those little "oopses" in life which we all seem to remember, and which make for the best stories.