For the families of Americans who have spent the last uneasy weeks in embattled Iran, the bare reports have provided little solace, as individual communications were all but cut off.
For a few, though, the worldwide network of amateur -- ham -- radio operators has once again performed its periodic miracle-inemergency.
On Saturday Mike in Tehran made contact with his son Mark in Indiana courtesy of an amateur radio operator in Maryland, with a little boost from a friend -- another ham -- in Jordan.
The Maryland operator was Lee Winde of Laurel. He is one of about 15 area "hams" in the area with equipment sophisticated enough to augment official communications. And, at the behest of a friend in the State Department, Winde has been relaying messages from Iran for about a week, along with his friend, Dick Price, a retired CIA communications specialist who lives in Potomac.
Winde and the other amateurs have tried to keep the band as open as possible. Saturday morning an amateur from "the Great Smoky Mountains" wandered into the frequency. Winde came on, giving his call letters phonetically:
"This is Kilowatt Three India Charlie Papa. Two KC's below you we're running emergency transmissions from Americans in Iran. If you can scoot up 10 KCs it will be appreciated. We need all the help we can get in bringing in Iran."
Winde got on the radio Saturday morning at 6:30. It was 2:30 in the afternoon in Tehran, the first major airlift of Americans was underway -- about 800 people heading for Europe on 747s. For the past two hours he had gotten some accidental jamming from stations whose call letters he recognized as Russian. He waited patiently. But no word from Iran.
The first signals were weak that morning -- muffled and tinny, almost like a computer voice. Winde listened calmly, attentively, scribbling a few words on his legal-sized pad.
"I picture someone operating in an attic with the wires strung out through louvers or out open windows," Winde said about the amateurs in Iran. "Since things have soured there, signal strength has dropped dramatically. Obviously they're dismantling big visible antennae so they won't be noticed." Then the silence was interrupted.
An Iranian national who works for an American company has begun transmitting, but the broadcast is so garbled that only an experienced amateur could make out the words. Sometimes Winde says, this Iranian transmits from his car. The message was, "The log books have been sent to England." That could mean any kind of communication from Iran, said Winde. The Iranian continued. Please have a person in New York call him. He gave a number.
Then a Jordanian amateur, Naiel Malhas, in Amman, came on more clearly. Because Jordan is closer to Iran, Malhas can pick up the weak signals from Iran and relay the messages to the stateside operators. Winde answered.
"We've got good copy on you. Naiel. Is there anything else we can do for our friend in Tehran?"
Another stateside operator has a query for Naiel:
"What is the general status of Americans over there. Are the departures going okay?"
Meanwhile Chuck Watters, an amateur in Orlando, had gotten a better connection with the Iranian national and had relayed new information to government personnel.
Winde leaned back in his chair with his third cup of coffee, leaving that communication to Watters. "This is the waiting game," he said with a smile. Messages are intermittent. Often Winde or Price or another stateside operator will pick up messages more clearly than the government military-affiliated radio (shortwave) stations. So they spend a lot of time simply listening for anything they can get, even if it pertains less to the welfare of individuals and more to the conditions of Americans in general.
Winde is 35, a short, well-built man with black hair sprinkled with gray. He has a relaxed manner and an easy smile. He owns an electronics service center three blocks from his house where he lives with his wife, Dee.
In front of him on his desk is a pack of Winston Lights and two phones, one at each elbow. The beige one on the left is for outside calls. The red on the right he uses to call radio operators. On his desk and shelves -- two receivers and two transmitters. Two amplifiers, a digital transceiver -- $15,000 to $20,000 worth of equipment.
Outside in back of his house is a 100-foot tower with directional antenna and a 55-foot tower similarly equipped, both looming out of the iceencrusted snow. Winde estimates 1 percent of the 300,000 amateurs in the country are this well-equipped. Dick Price is another.
It was 9:05 a.m. Saturday, when Winde picked up a fuzzy but surprisingly clear voice.
"That's it," Winde said and turned the digital transceiver until it hit the best frequency for the voice. It was Mike -- from Tehran.
Dick Price in Potomac boomed across the frequency: "Good to hear you, Mike."
"I'm fine, I expect to be here six more days... uh... I don't have a departure date.. " departure date.."
At that point Mike began to repeat himself.
Instantly Winde got it. "He's being monitored.... you can be sure there was a censor there, Iranian or American..."
"Listen," Mike went on, "would you call my son at this number" -- and read it off.
Winde has already grabbed his red phone and dialed the number: "Uh, Mark? You have a relative in Iran? Right. I'm an amateur radio operator in Maryland and I've got your father on the radio right now..."
Mark Smedal, 22, a student in Fort Wayne, Ind., said yesterday that although he knew his dad had been in tight spots before -- as in Vietnam, for example -- he had been plenty uneasy for the past few weeks. Communications were at a virtual standstill. When the call came from Laurel Saturday with his father's voice relayed over the shortwave hookup he relaxed, he said, for the first time in weeks.
"Mike," Lee Winde had told the older man, "while you were talking your son was listening... our very warmest wishes from the state of Maryland...'