Most nights at about 8:30 p.m., Caleb Brown signs on to the Net.
Not the Internet, but rather an amateur radio network of local folks who often chat late into the night.
At 9, Caleb is the youngest member of the York County Amateur Radio Society. In June, he became a licensed operator through the Federal Communications Commission.
"That test was hard," Caleb said. "I barely passed by the skin of my teeth."
Caleb's enthusiasm for amateur radio is important, because as more kids gain interest, it means the hobby has a future, said Caleb's grandfather Van Brown, a former president of the local amateur radio society.
"There are very few 9-year-olds that have a license," said Allen Pitts, spokesman for American Radio Relay League, the national association of amateur operators. "It is highly unusual."
Amateur radio, commonly called "ham radio," has been around since at least the early 1900s. But as youngsters have taken to cell phones and the Internet, the pastime's popularity has waned.
"It's like Myspace for old people," Van Brown said.
The hobby, however, is far from dead. Some 3 million people count themselves as "hams" worldwide, with 660,000 of them in the United States.
South Carolina has about 8,100 hams, with 450 in York County.
Hams see it not only as a hobby, but a public service.
Van recalls a night when someone signed on and called in an accident in which a woman was hurt. The ham who heard the transmission quickly called 911.
"She was like a first responder," Van Brown said.
When Hurricane Hugo struck the area in 1989, power and communication lines went down. But hams were able to communicate and get help were it was needed.
Not just anyone can broadcast. The FCC has strict rules. Unlike CB, or citizen's band radio, users must be licensed. They also have to identify themselves with their call sign -- Caleb's is KJ4EWQ -- before they talk over a frequency. To get a license, hams must pass a 35-question test.
"The toughest part was understanding the words," Caleb said. "It gets all into radio stuff and you barely understand what it means."
Caleb looks forward earning his next license, which will let him talk with people in other countries.
But that will have to wait until football season is over. The Lesslie Elementary School fourth-grader plays left guard for the Hornets.
In some ways, Caleb was destined to be a ham. He was 2 when his grandfather, who along with his wife Leslie have raised Caleb since birth, was first enthralled by the gadgets.
Now Van Brown can't live without his radio.
"I could do without my cell phone. But I can't do without my ham," Brown said. "I've always been fascinated by radios and antennas. I talk to people all over the world using just a piece of copper wire hung in our backyard."
Added Caleb, "It's amazing."
LOCAL AMATEUR RADIO WEB SITES
For more information on amateur radio, check these Web sites:
• American Radio Relay League: www.arrl.org
• York County Amateur Radio Society: www.ycars.org
For details on the Shelby (N.C.) Hamfest, go to www.shelbyhamfest.org