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Wagoner High School club hams it up all over

By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer

— WAGONER — First thing in the morning, late in the afternoon and all through lunch, Wagoner High School students chat with people in faraway places.
Crammed in what used to be a bedroom in a vacant old house, members of the school’s WindTalkers radio club crowded around shortwave radios and passed handsets from one student to the other. Each tried to reach someone — anyone — with the greeting “Whiskey India Five November Delta. Can you hear me?”
The WindTalkers spent the past week trying to log as many radio contacts as possible in the winter School Club Roundup. The worldwide roundup is sponsored by the Council for the Advancement of Amateur Radio in the New York City Schools and the American Radio Relay League. Wagoner took sixth place in the roundup in 2005 and second in 2006.
By the time this year’s roundup ended at 6 p.m. Friday, the WindTalkers made more than 478 contacts in 47 states, seven Canadian provinces and seven countries. Club president McKenzie Clotier said that was “way more” than the club reached last year.
Club faculty sponsor Jeff Sharrock said school stations include high schools, West Point, Arizona State University and Notre Dame, even some elementary schools.
WindTalker Woody Keech, a senior, said it may be several months before the school knows if it wins this year.
The 20 student WindTalkers learn all about wireless amateur radio, a form of communication that Sharrock said dates to the battlefields of World War I. They also learn Morse code, which dates to the invention of the telegraph in the 1830s.
The name WindTalkers honors the Native American code talkers who used their native languages to send coded messages to allies over shortwave radio during the two World Wars, said Sharrock, who teaches history at the high school. He said Choctaws did some code-talking during World War I while Comanches and Navajos transmitted messages during World War II. The World War II codes were never broken.
As they hit the airwaves, students learn more than just how to communicate on ham radio, Sharrock said. They learn geography each time they reach someone in a new location, he said.
Each new station reached is logged in a book and listed on a U.S. map and a world map.
“My very first contact was with someone in the Azores in Africa,” said Clothier, a sophomore.
“Just yesterday, we found someone in Cuba,” sophomore Derek Langley, the club’s operations officer, said Thursday morning.
There also is plenty of physical science and earth science involved, Sharrock said.
“We bend radio waves as we reach the upper levels of the ionosphere,” he said. “And we’re affected by sunspot activity.”
On Thursday morning, the students huddled in the cold house, using electricity generated by a portable battery. Two small space heaters and a couple dozen donuts helped make the room a little warmer.
However, weather does not affect how well the radios work. Keech said the radios work just as well on a cold day as on a warm day, on a stormy day as on a clear day.
What does affect radio contact is timing and knowing when to reach the peak times of radio communication in a particular area, Langley said.
He said it is just as easy to talk to someone on the other side of the globe as it is to talk to someone in Kansas. It just depends on who’s on the radio at the time.
Thursday morning, students logged contacts from Florida, Arizona and California, parts of the country that are close to the same time.
The WindTalkers go to their radios at different times during the day to reach people in other time zones. The clock on the club room wall is set at Greenwich Mean Time, which is six hours ahead of Central Standard Time in Wagoner.
Students also learn other languages.
“We have some Spanish operators on the air,” Sharrock said.
Sharrock acknowledged that, yes, kids can contact people around the world via the Internet. However, the wireless radio also can work with computers, he said.
“They can send text messages using radio as a slave to the computer,” the former Marine said. “The radio can transfer messages from a laptop computer.”
Members also can become licensed radio operators.
Sharrock said his ultimate goal is to help kids know how to use the radio in emergency situations.
“But I want them to have fun as they go,” he said.
Clothier, who plans to be a certified public accountant, said the radio work indeed is fun.
“It’s fun to talk to people from all over,” she said Thursday. “Yesterday, I found a 9-year-old kid, and we talked for 10 minutes.”