The Clay County Fairgrounds was packed Saturday morning with amateur radio enthusiasts looking to find their next piece of radio treasure and connect with the people behind the call signs.

Vendors from around the state joined the Wabash Valley Amateur Radio Association for its annual Turkeyfest Hamfest Radio and Computer Expo, but for association President Kevin Berlen the event is more than just a flea market.

Berlen has had a passion for electrical processes and amateur radio — also known as ham radio — for more than 40 years, a love affair sparked by some old batteries his father brought home from work when Berlen was a child.

He then met a classmate in grade school with a similar passion, and the two began to experiment with a shortwave radio the classmate got as a birthday gift.

"That thing was like a magic mystery box to us," Berlen recalled. "It was just this piece of equipment sitting on a table with a speaker on it, and all these lights inside, but when you turned the thing on you heard voices from Russia, South America, from the United Kingdom, from all over the world.

"The whole experience just captivated me. From that I got into a class, got my first amateur license at 14 and been at it ever since."

Berlen was able to segue his childhood passion into a career, currently working as a broadcast engineer responsible for a number of radio stations throughout the Wabash Valley.

"My interest in ham radio and electronics has allowed me pursue that career and it's worked out great," Berlen said. "I make a living doing the exact thing I like to do as a hobby. It couldn't have worked out any better."

One aspect of ham radio operation that Berlen said is especially interesting is emergency communication in the result of a disaster.

He described the ham radio's potential in the face of disaster and said that many of the expo-goers' hobby could save lives some day.

"If we have some type of wide-spread disaster where utilities are down, cell phone networks go down and public telephone goes down, you can take this equipment and hook it up to the battery in your car or a generator, run a wire up a tree and you're in communication with the entire world," Berlen said.

"You don't need any type of infrastructure, everything you need is in that radio and the antenna that goes with it. It could be the only thing that bridges the gap between what's going on in your area, be it utter devastation or an episode with the New Madrid Fault, and you can provide immediate communication in and out of that stricken area."

Berlen said Saturday's turnout was on the lighter side as the event is only in its second year and still working to be established, but said hosting local events allows radio enthusiasts to participate without having to travel.

Reporter Alex Modesitt can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at alex.modesitt@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarAlex. 

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