In 1976, two years after the Farm had established Plenty, a radio operator on the Farm in Tennessee was scanning the airwaves in preparation for his weekly meet-up with the other Farm satellite communities, when he heard what appeared to be distress calls. Responding to these cries for help, he learned that a devastating earthquake had struck the country of Guatemala during the previous night. As many as 25,000 people had been killed as the adobe homes and structures fell on people while they slept. Electrical power in the larger towns was disrupted and telephone communications were already almost nonexistent in the country. Radio was the way the world learned of the catastrophe.
Word spread through the Farm and to Peter Schweitzer, who had been tasked with turning Plenty into a real, functioning organization.
Within days after the earthquake, Peter was on a plane and on the ground Guatemala. Much to everyone’s surprise, he and Plenty’s offer to provide assistance was taken seriously. As it turned out, Canada had responded by sending a freighter filled with building materials, but they had no one on the ground ready to receive its shipload of plywood, two by fours and roofing tin, let alone contractors and work crews to turn those raw materials into buildings and living structures.
At that time, the Farm’s primary means of financial support was through construction work, so a handful of carpenters were sent down to assist in the reconstruction effort. Plenty volunteer Dennis Martin drew up a simple plan for a basic home which was approved by the Canadian embassy. Working with the local Mayans, he trained teams to use saws, hammers, and nails, tools that were unfamiliar to the indigenous population who have been working with adobe for centuries. Walls and roof trusses were framed up at a central location that could be carried by a team of men to a building site, assembled into a room, a roof placed on top and in no time a secure shelter was ready. The initial Phase 1 rebuilt virtually the entire village of San Andrés Itzapa, consisting of 1300 homes. Demonstrating what they were able to accomplish, materials kept flowing in, moving onto to build schools, municipal and other public buildings.
With such a major enterprise going on so far away from Tennessee, right away it was recognized that a ham radio operator was an essential role within the crew. Radio communication from Guatemala back to the Farm took place on a daily basis, often for many hours a day. The radio operator became an essential lifeline, allowing the crew in Guatemala to relay their immediate needs, be it supplies or personnel. Over two years the camp grew to in Guatemala 100 volunteers, with a support team that included mechanics, midwives and medical personnel.
Several ham radio operators from the Farm served in Guatemala for varying lengths of time. In the fall of 1978, it became my turn.
My Journey to Ham Radio
After living in Tennessee for a little over a year and the birth of our son, my wife Deborah and I made the decision to move to a smaller satellite community. We were both still quite young. I had just turned 21, she was still 20 and that meant there wasn’t much opportunity in Tennessee for us to step into roles of responsibility. We felt there would be much more opportunity to assert ourselves on a smaller community.
I was on a satellite community called The Green River Farm in Kentucky when I heard about the new project in Guatemala. No one in our small commune had a radio license, but we had a radio receiver that allowed us to listen in. Five of us started studying to get our license at a class a man was giving in a nearby town. Progress was slow since the class was only one evening a week and we all had other jobs in the community as well as young families to care for. Our group decided to let Stephen Skinner, who was good at math and showed the best aptitude, study full-time until he was able to get a license.
When Stephen got his license and the day finally arrived that we were able to join in on the radio communications, it sent a shockwave through our members. Almost immediately, we saw the limitations of our small commune life and it made apparent our desire to be part of something larger. Within a week, we made the group decision to sell the 60-acre property and move back to Tennessee where all the action was happening.
I knew that having a radio license would be a ticket to travel and adventure, and a skill that might allow me to be a volunteer in Guatemala. I kept studying and to enhance my learning I asked to be a worker at the Farm’s new CB radio store in the town.
The acronym CB stands for Citizen’s Band, another set of radio frequencies allocated by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) that could be used by the general populace without a license requirement. CB radios were low power and were primarily used by techie types to talk with friends that were within a mile or two of each other.
Our CB store was in response to a nationwide fad. President Richard Nixon had issued a mandate that speeds on the interstate be reduced to 55 mph in order for vehicles to be more fuel efficient. The nation’s truck drivers were up in arms (or at least very unhappy) and they responded by using CB radios to warn each other about the location of police and speed traps. Because the truck drivers were driving all across the country, it rapidly turned into a national phenomenon.
CB radios were perfect for life on the Farm. It gave us instant communication throughout the entire community and anyone could talk on them. CB “handles,” the nicknames used by truckers to help them stay anonymous as they broke the law driving over the speed limit and warning others about the presence of Smokey Bears (cops), were rapidly adopted on the Farm. Everyone had a CB handle whether they talked on the radio or not. It helped the community be more fun and not take itself as seriously as it had in the early days. Two members of the Farm wrote a book entitled The Big Dummy’s Guide to CB Radio, which sold over 1 million copies! One of the authors opened Skyrocket Electronics as a business in the nearby town of Columbia, Tennessee.
My job at Skyrocket was to install CB radios in cars and pickup trucks and we had a steady stream of customers. This gave me fast experience in the tuning of antennas, learning how to solder and repair a broken wire in a microphone cable, and some basic troubleshooting of radio electronics.
However, my quest to get a ham radio license was going slow and took several steps. In Tennessee, they only offered the tests a few times a year in different cities around the state. Another fellow and I hitchhiked to Chattanooga, a 4-hour drive away. It took us probably about 20 hours to hitchhike, including getting a few hours of sleep curled up on the ground next to the interstate, I passed the basic Morse code test (5 words a minute), but failed the written test.
A few months later I tried again in Nashville. I scored a ride with a work crew and got dropped off and then went to use the bathroom before going to take my seat. When I came out of the bathroom, they had already started the written test and would not let me join. I was able to pass the next level of Morse code at 13 words a minute.
Again a few months later I went to Memphis and passed the first part of the written test for a General Class license. However, to join The Farm radio crew, I needed an Advanced license, which gave you access to additional frequencies that were also less crowded with other operators.
Finally, I went and spent a few months on the Farm’s city center in Homestead, Florida replacing the radio operator down there who wanted to go back to Tennessee. You could take the test in Miami every week, but I only needed one more time to get my Advanced license.
Florida was a nice break from the muddy winters of Tennessee, but by spring my family and I were ready to go back to the Farm. Fortunately, there was another radio operator who wanted to take my place.
I spent about a year working with electronics on the Farm, fixing radios for the Midwives, and repairing medical equipment for the community’s clinic.
The Longest Walk
My first real opportunity for an adventure with radio came when Plenty decided to offer support to The Longest Walk, a protest by Native Americans who were marching from California to Washington DC. As they crossed each state, representatives from indigenous tribes along the way came to join in the march and by the time they reached Pennsylvania there were over 2000 people.
The Farm had struck up a relationship with the Indigenous Nation of Akwesasne, the Iroquois people of the Northeast. They sent a few members of their tribe to the Farm for training in the skills of midwifery and basic medical care. The Farm sent The Longest Walk an ambulance staffed with a volunteer from Akwesasne, a Muskogee man who was our community’s only Native American member, and myself as an ambulance driver and radio technician.
Our ambulance was outfitted with a CB radio that put us in communication with walkie-talkies and CBs in other support vehicles. We also had a ham radio that let me talk back to Tennessee. In addition, I had a scanner, allowing us to monitor the police communications and listen in on their surveillance of The Walk.
I spent six weeks on the road and had the good fortune to be welcomed by a grandmother, her daughter and grandchildren from a reservation in Oklahoma. They fed me every night, including lots of fry bread — a traditional staple. I attended councils and circles with native elders and the experience had a profound and transformational impact on my life.
Going to Guatemala
Not long after coming back to the Farm, the word went around that the radio operator in Guatemala wanted to come home to pursue a courtship with his long-distance girlfriend and I immediately let be known that I was ready and willing to go.
My wife Deborah had been developing her skills working with the Farm’s medical crew, specifically in the lab. The lab technician was another essential skill needed in Guatemala. They were tasked with identifying when someone had become infected with parasites, an all-too-common aspect of life in a poor, developing country. Deborah would also monitor the camp’s water purification system. Together we made a formidable team and in 1978 rode to Guatemala in the community’s Greyhound Scenicruiser along with about 20 other new volunteers.
By that time the camp had moved to the highlands just outside the town of Sololá, at an elevation of 7000 feet. It was a fantastic location for radio communications and our signal back to Tennessee was loud and clear. The camp also had a number of CB radios that we used for communication in various vehicles. I also did repair work on things from house wiring to refrigerators.
As the resident electrician, I installed the electrical service, wiring coolers and other equipment for the soy dairy, one of Plenty’s most ambitious projects. Now 40 years later Alimentos de San Bartolo is still in operation, providing high protein soy milk, tofu, and the ever popular soy bean ice cream to customers all across the country. It provides income employment for the Mayan community of San Bartolo and many venders will take the facility’s ice cream-on-a-stick and sell them in surrounding towns.
Back in Tennessee, the Farm had applied for and received a license for a low power FM broadcast station that served as a communal soundtrack for music, as well as announcements about community news and events taking place. Seeing how this had helped unify our community, the idea came about to install an FM station in Sololá.
A grant covered expenses for a tower and a small cinderblock building for holding the transmitter.
Unfortunately, in small developing countries like this, permission you may receive from one wing of the government, in our case the reconstruction office, did not guarantee support from Guatemala’s office of telecommunications. The transmitter was impounded at customs and held for several years. With much perseverance and asking over and over, our support from the office of reconstruction came through and we were finally able to get the transmitter released. By this time another radio operator Alan Reikland had joined me in Guatemala, and he and I were able to put it into operation and complete the installation, giving the state of Sololá its first Mayan language radio station.
The studio for the station was housed in the offices of the Indian municipal building, in Spanish the Municipalidad Indigena de Sololá, located in the center of downtown Sololá. The station played lots of marimba music and brought in an income by leasing out broadcast time on the station to various religious organizations in the area. Overtime these organizations, and particularly the protestant evangelicals pretty much took over the station. Our vision of building indigenous unity by maintaining their cultural language was somewhat superseded by this new form of colonization.
Larger towns in Guatemala had a fire department which also served double duty as ambulance drivers. Known as the Bomberos, they were the first responders for auto accidents and medical emergencies., I began working with the station in Sololá, helping to get functioning radios in their ambulance and firetruck and a radio base station at the firehouse. I built an antenna out of pieces of aluminum pipe and installed it on the roof of their building.
Word spread to the Bomberos in the city of Chimaltenango, a couple hours north and closer to Guatemala City. Since I had no funding, the Bombero office in Chimaltenango would provide me with enough money for bus fare and buy me lunch. I would catch an early morning bus and spend the day working on the radio and antenna at their main office, in their vehicles, and setting up corresponding radios at their additional substations around the city and in surrounding villages.
Sometimes in order to have a little spending money, I would hitchhike home and use my bus money to buy a snack. One night I got picked up by an American expatriate who ran a restaurant in a tourist town below our camp in Sololá. He was driving a pickup and had me ride in the back with the supplies. As it got dark, he turned on his headlights which killed the engine! We started rolling backwards down the steep mountain road. He backed into a ditch in hopes of turning around to go downhill, facing forward in order to jump start the engine. Instead, we got stuck.
Another American, this time an evangelical, drove past and saw our dilemma. He had a chain and pulled us out of the ditch and we were able to jumpstart the engine. However every time he turned on the headlights it killed the engine. I knew this meant that the alternator wasn’t working to charge the battery and provide electrical power to the vehicle. There was enough juice in the battery to power the spark plugs, but not enough to run the spark plugs and the headlights at the same time. We decided to drive behind the driver who had helped us, more or less following his headlights. However, since he couldn’t see us behind him, sometimes he would drive too far ahead and lose us. I held a flashlight out the window and shined it along the edge of the road letting the driver know if he was driving too close to the edge. The roads through the mountains at that time were very narrow, incredibly windy and full of turns with many steep drop offs. It was a harrowing experience to say the least.
When he dropped me off at our camp, I fixed him up with a new battery to ensure he had enough power to drive the additional miles further down the mountain, another thousand-foot drop in elevation to Lake Atitlán. Grateful, he returned the battery back to us the next day.
Radios around the Lake
At the time of the earthquake, although the ruling elite consisted of the Ladino population who’s power had been handed down from the early conquistadors and Spanish colonial powers, there was one Mayan Indian in the Guatemalan senate. He learned of Plenty’s work and sought us out. We understood the importance of a Mayan representative in the Senate, so we were trying to help him and offer support.
Seeing our expertise in radio communications, he asked us to install CB radios at villages around the lake that could be used in case of any emergency such as another devastating earthquake.
This all took place in the years before my arrival and by the time I got to Guatemala the situation had changed. He was no longer a Senator. Nicaragua had fallen to the Sandinistas and there was a revolution happening, a guerilla insurgency in both El Salvador and in Guatemala. The stronghold for the guerillas was in the mountains surrounding Lake Atitlán, an area not that far off in the distance and visible from our camp. The radios in the villages had not been maintained and were no longer functioning. However, they would pose a danger to anyone found with them in their possession as evidence they were working with the guerillas. I decided to collect the radios and see if I could repurpose them.
There were five or six radios in all. Several were in small towns that I could drive to, but one in particular was deep in the mountains in the center of the guerilla stronghold. It was only accessible with a two-day hike through the mountains. I enlisted the help of Ephraim, a Mexico national that had gotten connected to Plenty and lived at camp. He would be my translator and buddy so I wasn’t traveling alone.
We got dropped off as far as the road would go outside Sololá and began backpacking our way up the mountain. The views of Lake Atitlán were breathtaking. The Mayan women and children we encountered no longer spoke Spanish, but only their Mayan dialect.
There was always a little resistance when I arrived to pick up a radio. It had value and represented something to the poor village. But the danger it put them in was real. With a little assertiveness, I collected the radio and stuffed it in my backpack. We spent the night and continued on our journey.
The next day we came to the edge of the escarpment and walk down a steep trail to San Pedro, moderately sized town on the lake. Picking up the radio there, we continued walking around the lake, again reaching a point where only a foot path took us to the next village. As we entered the last, the “traje,” the clothing worn by the residents of the village and the people who lived around it that identified them and differentiated them from all the other villages, changed. The men wore a wool toga, brown, the natural color of the wool from the black sheep. They wore a belt to cinch it at the waist and handmade sandals. It felt like going back in time.
The town specialized in the making of fiber from yucca. The broadleaf yuccas grew on small farms and they were cut and hold on someone’s back into town. A wooden mallet was used to pound the leaves breaking it down into the fiber. The fiber was collected and woven into long streams with young girls stretching out the string and then winding strings into rope down the broad pathways in the village.
The two of us were able to take a boat across the lake the next morning and make our way back home. The radios were put at new locations by the Bomberos and expanded their network.
This experience is an example of the numerous, small, unfounded projects Plenty volunteers were able to accomplish driven by our desire to help any way we could. It has been one of the true highlights of my life.