Veronica Harrington likes to talk about Barbie dolls.
Using her father's ham radio, she talks about her Barbies to people as far away as Chicago and Cuba. Most of her contacts react initially with some surprise.
The reason: At 5 1/2, the Long Beach girl is believed to be the youngest licensed ham operator in the United States.
"She's very unique," said Rosalie White, educational activities manager for the American Radio Relay League in Newington, Conn., which keeps records on the country's estimated 500,000 ham operators.
"Being able to open up and communicate like that is really fantastic. Anybody who gets anywhere in life has to start out early, and she's got a jump on everybody."
Veronica's father, Curt Harrington, a patent attorney who has been a ham operator since 1984, recalls how it happened. "I'd talk to people (on the radio) from time to time, and one day, Veronica came by and said she wanted to talk," he remembered. "I said, 'Fine, get a license.' So she did."
In fact, Veronica has been doing extraordinary things for most of her life. She began reading at age 3, according to her parents, and within a year was reading a physics dictionary. One of her favorite games is Monopoly, which she plays on a computer. And after scoring high on intelligence tests, she was placed in the Long Beach Unified School District's special program for gifted children, beginning with the first grade this fall.
To qualify for her novice ham license, Veronica spent two months learning the Morse code and studying for a 30-question written exam on the theoretical, technical and legal aspects of ham radio. According to her mother, Ann Harrington, who is also a ham operator, the process was aided by a computer program designed to teach the material.
After obtaining her initial license in March, the Harringtons said, Veronica passed a more rigorous exam upgrading her status from novice to technician--a designation allowing her access to a greater number of radio frequencies.
"It's lots of fun," Veronica says of the hobby to which she devotes about half an hour a day. "I have some friends on the radio."
One of her first friends was Mel Creston, a 62-year-old bank loan officer in Mission Viejo who has been operating ham radios for 15 years. "I just happened to have the radio on (and heard her)," he said. "I was flabbergasted--what a little gal!"
Since then he has talked to the young ham operator almost daily, Creston said.
When she isn't telling him about her Barbie dolls, he said, they discuss what she did in school that day, various weekend outings or the finer points of ham radio. After three months of talking via radio, the two recently met face-to-face at a local gathering of ham operators.
"She's a very intelligent young lady," Creston said.
Not all the reactions are positive, however. One man, Ann Harrington said, seemed snide and condescending, apparently in the belief that he was being fooled. And one group of hams temporarily stopped broadcasting rather than talk to someone they apparently believed could not possibly be licensed.
Not surprisingly, Veronica has other interests besides ham radio.
She loves ghost stories and vintage horror films. And when not on the radio, she can often be found in her room--assembling model airplanes or playing with a favorite teddy bear.
At least once a day, though, she sits in front of the radio in the den and throws her voice far out onto the airwaves.
"CQ CQ CQ," the young girl called loudly into the microphone one recent evening, using the traditional ham radio operator's code announcing her availability for contact. "This is KC6TQR in Long Beach, California, calling CQ and monitoring."
For a few moments only the crackling static of empty air could be heard in response. Then suddenly, a man's voice answered from out of the void. "I think that's wonderful," he said chuckling after she'd told him her age. "Five years old and already a tech. You're about 52 years ahead of me."
The man turned out to be Al Alejo, an aerospace engineer operating out of his garage in Cerritos. "I'm tickled pink," he said of the encounter afterward. "I heard that little voice out there and dropped what I was doing to talk to her. You don't hear little voices out there much."
After conversing politely for a few minutes, Veronica suddenly dropped the microphone and announced unceremoniously that she was going out to play.
Later, she voiced her single complaint about life as a ham operator.
"There aren't enough girls on the radio," she said.