I recently received an email with the subject line
Syd Furman, W6QWK, SK
and I knew a fellow member of the Ham Radio fraternity had passed away.
“SK” stands for “Silent Key”. This tradition for announcing the death of a “ham” started in the early days of radio when all communication was by Morse code and the telegraph key was the “human-machine interface”. Hams often have friends around the globe, friends with whom their only contact is through their radio. Friends are frequently known by their call sign — W6QWK — and only secondarily by their name. And for those who practice the art of communicating by Morse, individuals are often recognized first by their “fist” . . . the particular cadence of dots and dashes that is as unique as a fingerprint, as personal as a face.
Today, when radio communication is more likely to be by voice or some esoteric digital mode, the suffix SK remains a poignant reminder of our mortality and shared humanity. It is a reminder that their fist may be silent, but they remain in our memory.
The very existence of the designation, SK, and even more the unquestioned need to announce a fellow ham’s passing, demonstrates the strong sense of community among those for whom Amateur Radio is a hobby. How does this sense develop? After all, for many the only contact with the deceased was the disembodied sounds of dits and dahs emanating from a speaker. The only thing for sure that they have in common is they had to pass an exam to get their “ticket”– their licence to operate a radio station. In the early years they shared the struggle of designing and building their equipment. Today, a credit card and a few clicks on a website will get you everything you need.
An experience some hams have had is providing life-saving communication during a disaster. A state disaster preparedness official recently said “when you need hams, you really need them.” This is because our normal communications networks rely on a sophisticated infrastructure highly susceptible to disruption. With Amateur Radio you have a self-organizing network of self-sufficient individuals.
While providing service during a disaster certainly builds community, only a few hams actually experience this first hand. Yet the sense of a broader community persists. Is it because of a vicarious connection to those individuals? Is it the exclusivity? A connection to history? Whatever the source, it must fulfill a deep-set need to be so persistent.
We have seen the need to “belong” exploited to evil ends. However, in Amateur Radio we see one of many examples of communities of individuals who support each other and support the broader society. This type of “belonging” is vital if we are to flourish — and perhaps even survive — as a society. Perhaps if we better understood what creates communities such as these, we could build a stronger society and a society that also supports the individual.