This year, you might find Santa’s village – or something like it – in a retrofitted RV outside the True Value hardware store in Alpine.
You won’t find any reindeer inside. No tinsel or Christmas lights. Just a ham radio on a countertop. But that’s all you need to talk to Santa.
“Hello, Santa this is K5FD,” radios Rob Kinucan, the helper elf talking to the big man up north.
“Hello, Hello again Rob,” a familiar voice echoes back.
Kinucan is with the Big Bend Amateur Radio Club. To get kids on the line with Kris Kringle, his group has set up a communication network they call Santa Net. The RV is a tight squeeze, but 10-year-old Marcus Ramirez has no problem wiggling his way into a seat next to the radio. After a brief ham radio introduction, he’s ready.
“Hi, Santa!” Marcus shouts into the radio mic.
“Hello, Marcus, tell me how old you are?”
Marcus says talking to Santa was like every kids’ experience talking to Santa.
“It was fun and kind of," he hesitates, "embarrassing.”
The 10-year-old says delivering his wish list to Santa via ham radio was kind of weird and old-timey. He’s never done it before, but he thinks maybe his dad has.
“I don’t think ham radio is quite as magical as it had been maybe 30 years ago," Kinucan says.
He thinks kids today are so used to technology and using cellphones that the awe of ham radio isn’t as big anymore.
“But nonetheless, it’s a unique experience,” Kinucan adds.
For the last 12 years, the Big Bend Amateur Radio Club has been doing this, getting kids like Marcus in touch with Santa. Kinucan says it’s a fun way to get involved with the community and serves as a way to try to get a new generation interested in “continuing this legacy of amateur radio operation and public service and camaraderie that comes with” ham radio.
If you’re unfamiliar, ham radio works a lot like any other AM/FM broadcast you might pick up in your car or on your home stereo. The only difference: It operates on a separate range of frequencies. You would need a special radio to pick up the signal.
“We can provide emergency communication where cellphone signals aren’t available in those areas,” Kinucan says.
They’ve helped during emergencies like the Rock House Fire, which burned more than 300,000 acres of West Texas grassland in 2011. At that time, the group helped relay messages about road closures and the location of the fire to emergency personnel.
It can all be pretty serious. But during the holidays, it’s all about getting kids excited about ham radio and Santa Claus.
Toward the end of the night, about 10 kids came through to chat with Santa, and I couldn’t miss my chance.
“Hey, we have a big kid here,” Kinucan radios. “His name is Carlos Morales; he’s with Marfa Public Radio.”
“Well, OK,” Jolly St. Nick replies.
After showing me how to radio back – it’s as easy as pushing down on a button and releasing when you’re done – I muster the courage to ask Santa what I’ve been dying to know.
“Hi, Santa, just wondering if I made the good list this year,” I say.
Through a scratchy signal, he replies: “Well, Carlos, I was looking at my list here, and I’m not so sure about you. Are you going to straighten up for the rest of the year?
There’s not a whole lot of time left before the end of the year, so I guess I better be good.