After the first Iraqi missile attack on Israel last month, Yonah Alexander was terribly worried. Was his mother all right? Had she known how to use her gas mask? She is 84.
Alexander, a law professor who lives in Potomac, tried for hours to telephone Tel Aviv, but it seemed impossible -- the phone lines were hopelessly jammed. Finally, he turned to James Weitzman, of Rockville, a former student of his and a communications lawyer who also operates a licensed amateur radio station in his spare bedroom.
In less than two hours, Alexander had the answers he needed. His mother was shaken but fine.
"It was unbelievable, a great public service and a great human service," Alexander said. "To think about him helping without thought of financial gain -- the war is bad news, but that is the good news of the war . . . . There is Saddam Hussein, but there are also righteous people."
Weitzman, 43, has been busy since the first Scud missile was launched against Israel on Jan. 18, using his ham radio to link dozens of anxious area residents with relatives in Israel. Rina Kolnik, of Wheaton, needed to know that her brother, aunt, uncle and cousins had not been harmed. Irving Gastfreund, of Potomac, "heaved a sigh of relief," he said, when he learned that his stepmother was doing well. Others were equally desperate for information about loved ones.
"When normal communication channels are down, what else do you have?" Gastfreund said of Weitzman and other ham radio operators assisting in the connections. "It's the communications link of last resort."
It is also James Weitzman's ear on the world, his way of knowing firsthand and quickly how Israelis are coping with the uncertainty and stresses of war.
With his Israeli-born wife, Malka, who also has a radio license, Weitzman has during the tensest moments conducted a sort of high-speed relay, contacting many of the 800 radio operators he knows in Israel, giving them phone numbers of people to check on locally, feeding the information back to relatives waiting here.
"It is interesting to hear the tenor of what's going on there," Weitzman said. "There's a tremendous amount of anxiety. This is something that they're not accustomed to, being shot at and having to sit on their gunpowder."
Weitzman's recent activity reflects the serious side of the hobby that he took up at age 13. He spent much of his youth closeted in his basement radio room in Milwaukee. "All my friends, their version of fun was throwing rocks at each other and putting bananas in tailpipes," he said.
Weitzman, though, found more entertainment in talking by radio to a shepherd in the Falkland Islands, a dentist in the Sudan, a resident of Leningrad at a time "when the Soviet Union was big, bad, red Russia."
"The people who are into ham radio are not the stereotype you would conjure up -- some nerdy guy in a pair of greasy Hush Puppies with a white vinyl RCA penholder in his pocket," he said. "You're talking about people who cut across all societal and economic lines. I mean, Arthur Godfrey was a ham operator. Senator Barry Goldwater was a ham operator."
Now, more than ever, Weitzman is thankful for his pastime and the electronic miracles it performs. But he wishes, like many of his counterparts in Israel, for more pleasant topics of conversation to fill the airwaves.
On a recent morning, a voice speaking in Hebrew crackled from the radio in Weitzman's home. The man's name was Aryeh. He lives outside Tel Aviv. He works for a major airline, but there is no work for him now -- who is traveling with a war going on in the Persian Gulf?
"You could send chocolates," Aryeh joked when Weitzman asked if there was anything he needed. But later, when the question was posed again, Aryeh didn't laugh. "All we need is peace," he said. "Shalom."