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Court Bailiff Travels Globe Through Ham Radio

October 06, 1988|LYNN STEINBERG | Steinberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

To a shy and sheltered teen-ager from Reseda, the sound of a presidential candidate on his ham radio Election Day morning seemed almost magical.

It was a brief conversation, a few minutes at most. And although no more than pleasantries were exchanged, that boy, now a man, still gushes about the encounter 24 years later.

"Here was Sen. Barry Goldwater running for president of the United States, and in 1964, the day of the election, I'm talking to him on the radio," said Andy Romanisky, now a 40-year-old deputy sheriff who lives in Northridge and works as a bailiff in the Van Nuys courthouse.

"I was just astonished," Romanisky said. "This was the presidential election."

It was that Election Day exchange that cemented Romanisky's love affair with amateur--or ham--radio, a passion that would lead him around the world to meet the people whose voices he had come to know but whose lives and customs remained a mystery.

Visits Abroad

Romanisky has gained glimpses of such countries as the Soviet Union, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil through ham radio operators he has visited abroad. He has taken eight trips since 1980, and his next is planned for Oct. 17. He will spend two weeks traveling through Singapore and Thailand.

Romanisky, a soft-spoken man with an easy smile, is one of 437,808 amateur radio operators in this country--and one of several thousand in the San Fernando Valley--licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. The number has steadily increased since 1914 when the American Radio Relay League--which registered ham radio operators before the FCC--reported 200 of them nationwide.

In the years since, the origin of the term "ham" has been widely debated, but according to one of the more popular theories, it dates to the early 1900s when shipboard operators at sea, many of them British, complained about interference from amateurs. The British pronounced "amateur" with an "h"--as in "hamateur"--and the word eventually was shortened to "ham."

None of that seemed important to Romanisky, however, when he was 13 and exploring the wonders of radio with his friends.

Radio Club

Steve Miller, now a Sherman Oaks attorney, met Romanisky at the North Hollywood Radio Club in 1961, one month after reaching him on the air. Now, more than two decades later, they still talk on the radio each day.

"He's always on the air," Miller said of Romanisky. "You know, most people pick up a hobby and just lose it after a while. But ham radio has been a major part of his life ever since I've known him."

Romanisky is a member of the Lockheed Radio Club in Burbank and is often a guest speaker at meetings and amateur radio conventions. He said he spends an average of one hour a day on the air--far less than he used to as a teen-ager.

Romanisky was 13 when he passed a Morse code test and got his first amateur radio license. He set out to build his own system, painstakingly following the directions in the manuals he had collected.

"I was so proud," he said. "It was the very first one I had built. Everything was correct--except for one wire. And when I turned it on, the wire bubbled and caught fire. I thought my whole life had gone up before my eyes."

The damage was minor, however, and Romanisky soon had his own radio station.

A New World

"It opened up a whole new world to me," he said.

Since ham operators typically exchange cards with their names and call letters after a radio contact, it wasn't long before QSL cards--so named for an old Morse code--began pouring into Romanisky's home from such places as Zambia, Chile and Guatemala. The mail carrier's arrival soon became the high point of Romanisky's day.

"As a kid, to actually talk to people in other countries, to receive mail from them, was just fascinating," he said. "If you're very shy about meeting people on the street, you can go into a room, talk into a microphone and the shyness goes away. You're really just talking to that microphone, and you can develop very brief or intimate conversations with people."

Those conversations can last a few moments or a few hours.

Everyone Can Listen

"On a nice, lazy afternoon, we'd get to talking and telling jokes . . . about politics, travel or other hobbies," Romanisky said. "We'd get into a round table with people breaking in and out. If it's an interesting topic, it attracts people on the air. Everyone can listen."

It is that aspect of ham radio that most repels Romanisky's wife, Marilyn.

"When I get on, I clam up," she said. "When he goes to Central America and calls me . . . via the radio, I know everyone is listening. I'll answer in one or two words, and when it's his turn, he goes on and on and on."

Romanisky's first radio was a basic one--a transmitter, receiver and antenna--that cost about $100 to assemble. "But that's when people were making $100 a week if they were lucky," Romanisky said. "Having a paper route and an understanding mother and father enabled me to put it together, but there went the new bicycle."

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