Court Bailiff Travels Globe Through Ham Radio

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."

More Complex System

The system that Romanisky has today is far more complex than that first radio, and it is worth far more--about $4,000.

"It's like a car," Romanisky said. "You can buy one that will get you from point A to B, or you can get a Rolls Royce. You can buy used equipment for $200 . . . and have a complete station, or get a radio with a lot of bells and whistles--computer access, memory and much more power. The accessories don't make the radio work any better, but they make it more convenient."

Convenience and power aside, it is the connection that radio forges between people that most appeals to Romanisky. Thousands of miles melt away as bonds are built between strangers.

In 1965, as a young Naval recruit after graduation from Burbank High School, Romanisky was stationed in Jacksonville, Fla. He knew no one there and spent most of his off-duty hours at the radio station on base. He soon received a card, emblazoned with an alligator, from a ham radio operator in Jacksonville named Wade Braswell, a man, it turned out, whom Romanisky had talked with the year before when the two lived 3,000 miles apart.

Friendship Developed

The two men arranged to meet, and, in 1972, Braswell was the best man at Romanisky's wedding. He remains one of Romanisky's best friends and one of about 50 radio contacts with whom Romanisky keeps in regular touch.

In 1980, a group of Romanisky's wealthy Brazilian radio contacts invited him to stay in a secluded beach house overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

For six weeks, Romanisky and four friends--including Miller, the attorney--were shown a world filled with servants, chauffeurs and private planes.

"The maid would come out in white gloves to serve us our coffee, and she would set the table with the finest silver," Romanisky recalled.

A twin-engine plane would serve as transportation to a pristine beach, and parties were a time to mingle with the rich and famous, actor Omar Sharif among them.

"It was a completely different life style," Romanisky said. "After being in the service, working in the Sheriff's Department and trying to get a house and get settled, it was beyond anything we ever experienced."

"I remember leaving after six weeks," lamented Miller. "There were 50 people there saying goodby to us. I remember getting on the airplane and crying because I didn't want to go."

Romanisky has not always basked in luxury during his sojourns abroad, however.

In 1986, he spent nearly five weeks traveling across the Soviet Union, visiting radio operators with whom he had talked and exchanged cards.

He flew first to Leningrad and then to Moscow where he boarded the trans-Siberian train to Khabarovsk in eastern Siberia--a 6,000-mile trip. He then went to Kherson, a city at the mouth of the Black Sea, to visit a friend he had sent radio maps to years before. He arrived to find the maps--which display the first few digits, or prefix, of a nation's call letters--affixed to the walls of the local radio club.

Although his travel plans had to be filed with the Soviet tourist organization, Intourist, Romanisky generally was able to move freely about the country since most of the places he hoped to see had been declared open cities.

To each destination, he brought a videotape of American life that he hid in his camera and smuggled into the country. "I wanted desperately to show this to my friends there, to show them what things here were really like," Romanisky said. "But I wasn't going to sweat the program. I was just going to play stupid if they found it. I mean, it's not as if I was smuggling in narcotics. That would be a whole different story."

Romanisky was calm as he proceeded through customs, and although Soviet authorities neglected to open his camera, they did confiscate three of his eight blank videotapes, which they said exceeded the limit of five for foreign tourists.

The video that Romanisky slipped into the country contained scenes of California freeways, supermarkets and shopping malls and was narrated by one of his Russian friends in the United States.

He displayed it on a 2-inch television screen that intrigued his Soviet hosts almost as much as the video.

"It was total culture shock for them to see a boat towed by a car," Romanisky said. "They couldn't understand the American fascination with cooking meat on a grill outside. And when they saw the shopping market with so many fruits and vegetables lined up, they thought that was unbelievable. There was just so much."

Finally, there was the shot of Romanisky's 1983 blue Fleetwood Cadillac.

"They saw that big car and said, 'My god, we knew you had a better life style. We just didn't realize how much better,' " Romanisky recalled.

Since many ham radio operators in the Soviet Union can't afford their own equipment and belong to radio clubs--there are several in major cities with membership in the hundreds--they were particularly impressed with Romanisky's private station.

It is housed in a small one-room bungalow that Romanisky built in front of his home eight years ago. On top of the house sits a 65-foot tower with two beam antennas.

Inside the station, on the wall behind the radio, is a world map that Romanisky has electronically rigged with more than 50 blinking red lights marking the places he has visited. Trinkets from those countries decorate the shelves, and photographs of friends in foreign lands, numbering in the thousands, are pasted to poster board or tucked into albums.

This is Romanisky's haven, a place to escape the pressures of daily life.

After sunset, when radio conditions are often at their best, Romanisky will retreat to his bungalow, turn on his radio and spin the dial.

"You never know who is going to come back to you--the guy down the street or someone in Africa," he said. "You never know what part of the world may be listening."

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