The 1989 Tournament of Roses Parade : Ham Operators: Parade’s Communications Lifeline
Rose Parade official Bill Flinn stormed into the cramped control office of the Tournament of Roses Radio Amateurs just before dawn Monday morning.
“Where is my ham operator? He was supposed to meet me at 5 a.m. . . . I really need some assistance,” he bellowed, forcing amateur radio operators broadcasting nearby to plug their ears.
The radio amateur--or ham--assigned to Flinn, the parade’s full-time public relations man, is one of more than 300 volunteers who provided an internal communications network for the 1989 parade. Ham ranks have grown so fast--up from 34 in 1973--that the Rose Parade has surpassed the New York Marathon as the nation’s largest gathering of working hams.
The urgency in Flinn’s voice indicated how much parade officials have come to count on the hams during their 16 years of service.
Beginning the day before the parade, the hams help prevent float collisions during the long convoys from construction barns to the parade route. Then, on parade day, hams carrying at least one radio--usually two--shadow the white-suited Tournament of Roses officials as their personal communicators.
For the past 11 years the ham radio operators have been joined by ham television enthusiasts who use TV to give tournament organizers close-up views of the progress of the parade.
In the post-parade float viewing area, a few hams use a new system called PACKET, a laptop computer that transmits through radio frequencies, to log names of lost parents and children.
“We are the eyes and ears of the white-suiters,” said Bud Boulton, one of the original group of 34.
John McCracken, a blind ham, put it another way: “We are their ears and mouths.”
This was McCracken’s first Rose Parade and his job was to man a side frequency and field questions from curious hams around the nation who heard Rose Parade talk on the air.
Tournament officials praise the hams for their work. “If they didn’t do what they do, we couldn’t get that parade down the street--and that’s the truth,” said Delmer Beckhart, a member of the executive committee.
On hearing such compliments, the hams turn humble.
“No one’s indispensable,” said Fred Edmunds, founder of the Tournament of Roses Radio Amateurs. “The Tournament House people will say they can’t do it without us, but that’s just flattery.”
Besides, said former Rose Parade ham Roy Barkhoff, now of Nebraska, “It doesn’t cost them anything . . . and they get a good job done.”
Before the hams started furnishing communications, telephones were used. To prevent vandalism, phone extension wires were looped over lines at the top of telephone poles, forcing tournament officials to carry a long hook as well as a plug-in telephone.
Constant busy signals were not the only inconvenience, said Pat Wickham, a member of the tournament’s communications and credentials committee.
“With telephones, it was confining,” he said. “You could only communicate with one person at a time. This way we have instant contact with everyone.”
Walkie-talkies are issued to some tournament officials, but the batteries run down quickly because non-hams cannot operate in the lower frequencies that use less energy. Without the booster of building-top and mountaintop repeaters built and used by hams, walkie-talkie range is inadequate, said Ray George, a planning and liaison committee member.
“We’d be in real trouble without them,” George said. “You can’t get a walkie-talkie to go from here to Azusa.”
The night before the parade, George had shivered on a corner in Azusa, trying to resolve a problem of logistics and egos.
Floats built at two different barns were being towed to a central location so they would proceed into Pasadena together, requiring only one set of roadblocks.
Then the 70-foot giraffe sponsored by the Carnation Co. hit a dip and needed minor repair.
Float builder Tim Estes already had his floats lined up at the meeting place; he didn’t want to wait for the rest of the convoy for fear of missing a 3 a.m. judging deadline.
Ham John Torgan from Phoenix linked George with judging committee members at Tournament House, nearly 20 miles away, where George was able to get Estes a guarantee that he wouldn’t be disqualified for tardiness.
The Azusa convoy finally arrived, all together, just after 3.
More than a month earlier, hams had gathered in a South Pasadena coffee shop before a parade orientation meeting. Conversation turned to speculation about which floats would fail. The giraffe, along with the Slice waterfall, the Casablanca Fan ski jump and the Honda Superman balloon, all seemed troublesome.
“I don’t know why they don’t put hams on the committees that decide which floats get to go,” ham Jeannie Nordland said at the time. “The minute we hear about it, we say, ‘That won’t work.’ ”
Like tournament officials, hams start planning for the 1990 parade today.
Like tournament officials, they wear white--not the tailored white tournament suits, but white wind breakers and baseball caps they bought themselves.
But hams are not consulted about float choice, nor do perks for hams include tournament officials’ busy social calendars or loaner cars. Instead, the hams are honored only once, at an annual cocktail party held at the Tournament House.
Hams insist that it is thanks enough just knowing the parade went smoothly largely because of them.
They tend to view the parade as a warm-up for more significant events, saying skills hams employ to advise tournament officials of the parade’s pace down Colorado Boulevard are the same skills that Caribbean hams used to warn of the speed with which Hurricane Gilbert churned across the ocean.
“We call it the annual planned disaster,” said Dave Jensen, who first brought his radio to the parade in 1968 to help out Pasadena city police. “You never know from one minute to the next what’s going to happen. That’s what makes it so good for training--it’s a controlled disaster.”
At the parade operations trailer, disasters were arriving like waves.
At 7:55 a.m., 20 minutes before the parade was to start, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra members on the First Interstate Bank float suddenly realized the truck scheduled to whisk away their instrument cases had not arrived. There was nowhere on the float to conceal the cases.
A tournament official patrolling the parade route found a ham operator who radioed the oversight in to ham Larry Etter. Etter repeated the information to tournament official Don Dewey, who dispatched another truck.
After several other ham transmits, ranging from the Pac-10 float calling for a tow truck to a tournament official looking for his crew, Etter told Dewey the pace car was leaving, marking the start of the parade.
Then, at 8:33 a.m., a spectator fainted in the middle of Colorado Boulevard, which threatened to block the entire parade.
An amateur television operator riding a motorcycle spotted the problem and recorded the rapid arrival of paramedics, who hurried the woman into an ambulance minutes before the pace car passed the location.
“Oh, the pace car isn’t even there yet--OK, OK,” Dewey said, as he studied the incident on an amateur television monitor.
Ham radio is a hobby with a mission, where participants invest up to two years studying Morse Code and $800 or more buying radio gear that they intend to put to constructive use.
“Hams like nothing better than to use their equipment,” Edmunds said. “And this is the most prestigious civic activity in the United States.”
Hams divide themselves into two main groups: the “techies"--who enjoy tinkering with the electronic equipment--and the “rag chewers,” who just like to talk.
While their occupations range from retired judge to bus driver, most of the technically oriented hams are involved with electronics or computers for work too at such places as Caltech’s laser lab and Hughes Aircraft’s radar systems group.
Mike Morris, who stands at the key corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevard shouldering a video camera, is a techie.
“I just do this for the thrill of making things work that don’t want to work,” he said. “It’s a charge.”
Amateur television requires a video camera, a television screen and a combination antenna and mini-satellite dish that transmits pictures over microwaves available to anyone with a ham license. Because it is relatively new technology, it requires constant fiddling.
The signals are bounced off repeaters--sort of like giant antennae--positioned on top of buildings and mountains. For the Rose Parade, the television hams bought time on a satellite, which made the signal viewable across the country by other TV hams.
Virginia Sherrill, who kept law enforcement apprised of ham communications at the Pasadena Convention Center, is one of a handful of women hams involved in the parade. She is a rag chewer.
“I get to talk all over the world,” she said, giggling as she recounted the time that King Hussein of Jordan sent out an on-air bulletin that he would be on the radio during his 1985 trip to the United States.
“It was just ‘hello,’ ‘goodby,’ you know,” Sherrill said. “But it was wonderful.”