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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Rocky Beckner, K8DRB/ex WD8SBO SK

One of the main reasons I got seriously involved in ham radio was the aspect of emergency communications and community service that comes along with it. When I first got licensed I was doing bike races, 5k runs, and marathons for local track clubs.

Every Spring, the weather in East Tennessee can be some of the most complex in the country. One minute it's hot and sunny, the next it's cold and rainy. The thunderstorms in the region can rival a hot, muggy day in Tampa (the self-proclaimed "lightning capital of the world") and the occasional spurring of a tornado can make you think you're smack in the middle of "Tornado Alley" in the midwest.

I can recall a time when, as the weather got severe in these parts, there wouldn't be a SKYWARN net, just a gaggle of hams discussing what the weather's doing in their neck of the woods, or even better, "it ain't doin' nuthin' over here,"with subsequent discussion on their latest visit to the doctor...

Back in the early to mid-90's, that was the norm for these parts. It was especially frustrating for me, because I would often get in my '91 Chevy S-10 pickup truck and stupidly bravely chase these storms, and to not have a bona-fide way to report to the National Weather Service my observations (remember, this was before everyone and their mom had a cell phone). 

Then, along came Rocky Beckner.

He was living in Morristown at the time, having come down from his home state of Michigan, where he had helped with SKYWARN up there to get ham radio a permanent presence in the local weather office up there.

Whatever the reason he ended up here in East Tennessee (I've since forgotten) he made it a mission to get a ham station set up at the Morristown office. It wasn't just him, but he was a driving force in getting it done.

WX4MRX, circa 2000
The hamshack at the weather service was officially started in 1998. He was operating at the weather service about a year or two prior, often with his own equipment. The Lakeway Amateur Radio Club contributed some money and equipment and a government grant was given to the weather service office to secure the radios and cabling. Soon, Rocky was able to run a pretty slick operation from inside the weather service office. 

The station's initial callsign was initially KF4EKQ, which was quickly changed over to WX4MRX within a few weeks. 

Early on in the project, around 1994, Rocky came to know me well, and apparently so did some of the meteorologists who worked up there at the time. I can't count the number of times he would chastise me on the air (or off) for chasing these storms in these parts, sometimes at night, with little/no knowledge of weather myself. He couldn't STAND it when I was operating "stormchaser mobile". I do admit I was so full of piss & vinegar I didn't care what he (or any meteorologist) thought, I was having fun and doing daredevil stuff years which I'd been doing YEARS before "Twister" hit movie theaters (and blasphemed stormchasers everywhere in my opinion).

The current setup at WX4MRX
Then on May 18, 1995, there was an outbreak across the area that was part of a larger outbreak across Tennessee. This event changed how I respected weather and what I felt my "calling" was in ham radio. It had already been an active day weather-wise, and I was attending a RACK meeting but took my radio in and had it on the then-wide area repeater on English Mountain. Barely 15 minutes into the meeting I heard the then-used EBS tone and the announcement that a tornado warning had been issued for Anderson County, to the west of Knoxville. I stood up and let everyone in the meeting know, then booked it to the "chase vehicle". I headed north on I-75 towards Raccoon Valley Road, and I saw the cell that spawned the warning, but if there was a tornado, it was wrapped in rain. As I approached the Raccoon Valley Road exit, a golf-ball sized hailstone hit my windshield. It didn't crack, but I took the hint to get the hell off the road, because I was on a stretch of Interstate with no way of turning around, and little options if all hail broke loose. I quickly got off the Interstate at the exit and found shelter under a gas station awning right as the hailstorm hit. Baseball and softball sized ice rained down overhead, and fortunately the awning sheltered me. At one point I did hear the distinct "freight train" cliched noise, but never saw the tornado, nor did I see signs of it doing damage, so it may have only been a funnel cloud.

I drove home, at the time living in north Knoxville, and got my Radio Shack HTX-202 on a local repeater. All I heard was a bunch of hams hollering that there "wasn't a net" and yet no one seemed to want to take the reigns and do something about it. So I grabbed a pen and some paper and started calling one. I'd had some net control experience with some area ragchew nets and tech nets, but this was going to be a new experience. Overall I did as well as I could, before a tornado touched down about 1/4 mile from my house and knocked out power and caused some pandemonium in my neighborhood.

I learned a lot that night, that I was much better at calling a weather net rather than trying to chase the damned things. Rocky wasn't aware of the net because we weren't on the normal repeater where we'd hear the him transmitting from. But he'd heard about it, and soon after I started finding out more about SKYWARN and studying more about weather, tornadoes, wind, hail, and flooding.

Once Rocky and friends (not sure about Moose and Squirrel) got the hamshack in full operation it was not uncommon to hear him at all hours, any given day of the week, whenever the weather went bad.

We became well acquainted as fellow net control stations and he warmed up to me as a Net Control more than as a very amateur stormchaser, and he even invited me to operate WX4MRX at the NWS office following a lengthy rainstorm that caused major flooding in the area. When he left to go back home to Michigan due to his health, I knew I'd never see him again, unless we both ended up checking out the Hamvention in Dayton, which never happened.  We'd email each other every so often, and he gave me some words of encouragement (albeit brief, but his emails were not much on content) when there was a "meltdown" in 2006 that forced me out of SKYWARN for a couple of years.

I'd send an occasional email to him about things going on down here, but he wouldn't respond much, if at all. I knew his health was not the best, so I thought nothing of it. Then, last weekend while at the the weather service during SKYWARN Recognition Day, another ham who was there gave me the news that he'd passed away "a year or two ago", which shocked me. I figured someone would have told me. I guess I got that far out of the loop to get that bit of info...

He was a pioneer in SKYWARN getting the recognition it deserved with regards to the contribution of ham radio and how it could benefit the weather service here in East Tennessee. He was dedicated to both the hams and the meteorologists and these days I think few hams here truly realize or appreciate what he brought to the table.

He was not one to mince words with you, and would often tell you exactly what he thought. If you were wasting precious time asking him questions irrelevant to the weather situation, he had no reservations about letting you know it. Being diplomatic was not always in his repertoire, but then again, as he often told me, SKYWARN nets are not the time to win friends and influence people. 

I for one have missed his dedication, often being at the weather service pretty much 24/7, sometimes struggling with the health problems that eventually drove him back home to Michigan. While his presence has been replaced, he will not be forgotten by those of us who remember the times prior to WX4MRX being on the air. Ham radio has made weather spotting in this area more complete and has helped to bridge a needed gap in what the radar "sees" and what is on the ground. Rocky was a crucial part of that in its infancy. He will be missed.

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