November 6, 2019KR OnlinePoetry

Creech Notebook 3: Drones in the Desert

    Wednesday, January 27

The lobby and breakfast room of the La Quinta
In North Las Vegas. Sitting over a second coffee to make notes.
Early up, I tried to get into the spirit of the thing
And borrowed Janet’s Magic Markers and made a large sign

North out of North Las Vegas,
The working-class end of the money machines and gushing fountains,
A new makeshift suburb turns into Great Basin desert very quickly.
A flat tableland, about 2000 feet above sea level,
Of coyote bush and sage, a hard put soil
In which even the yucca and Joshua tree seem merely occasional,
Ringed by mountains, snowy in the west
And bare eroded rock to the east.
A bleak splendor to the look of things.

The Air Force base sits in a shallow basin
Under a huge blue sky. The base is fenced by chain-link
Topped with circular coils of razor wire. In the distance
Two large beige hangars and a scattering
Of prefab buildings, one- and two-story,
All the color of the desert.

The adjacent town—Indian Springs—
Consists of a casino, a small adobe building
With one sign that says STEAK AND EGGS BREAKFAST $5.99
And another that says WIN A HARLEY, FOOD, BAR, SLOTS.

Next to the casino an abandoned gas station,
Next to the gas station a small motel done up in Victorian gothic frontier
And painted bright yellow. Beyond it the remains
Of another abandoned bar with a faded sign
That says EL SUEÑO.

East of the highway, up a hillside, the town
Like any small, inland west boomtown—
Is dust, cottonwoods, a scattering of trailer homes
And prefab housing. And a sign saying

The sign at the entrance to the base itself says,
In Navajo-looking lettering,

Approaching in a car at seven thirty in the morning—
We wanted to arrive before the young men and women
Who piloted the drones came down out of the hillside trailer homes,
Having seen their children, if they had them, off to school—
Was a long line of construction trucks
Lined up by the side of the road
At the commercial entrance to the base—cement trucks
And dump trucks and flatbeds carrying pipes
And cement culverts and construction materials.
Pavers and forklifts. Also delivery vans
And food service six wheelers, one driver
Sitting patiently at the wheel of each truck.

Defense money pouring in to expand the landing strips
Must have been doing well for local businesses.
Stimulus money, they call it. Names
On the trucks: Discount Dumpster, Deli Express (#1 Selling Sandwich!).
Southern Nevada Readymix, Lone Star Construction,
South Nevada Paving.

The drones themselves are startling,
And it takes the brain a moment to produce the reason why.
The bodies from the front are shaped like fighter planes
But the cockpits have no windows, just a blister of black
On the fuselage—because there’s no one in it,
No one needs to see out, and halfway back they taper to a sort of tail,
Like a dragonfly’s, and the electronics that replace the human eye
Hang from the bodies of the planes like a wasp’s legs.

Wasp. dragonfly, they came soaring over the desert basin and the intense blue
of the sky like malignant insects, and they were soundless.

Parked in the casino’s empty parking lot

(Inside the bartender was at the bar—
a woman, maybe early thirties, in a red bow tie—
had to be a military wife—
listening to the radio, cleaning the bar,
not another person in the place
and all the slots and poker machines turned on
and flashing in the casino gloom).

Some emblem of working life in America,
In many parts of the world.

Walked in the early desert chill down the fence line
To the commercial gate we’d driven past
On the weedy roadside—Brenda, Janet
(here for the third time and knows the drill),
Kat and me. We could see through the chain-link fence
That security at the main gate explained the long lines,
Each truck and trucker being carefully inspected.

A few cars roared past on the freeway.
Weaving through the creosote-scented scrub
A dark-blue pickup from inside the fence
With AF SECURITY painted on its side
Pulled up opposite us to get a good look—
all three of the women were wearing pink which told them
Who we were. (Mostly it’s either Catholic Worker people
Or Code Pink.) The truck slowed and then sped up
And proceeded to the gate. (Had they wanted
To intimidate us, they would have tracked us at our pace,
I thought). ALPHA ALERT flashing on the security screen
at the entrance guard post and, close enough now,
we could see a half dozen to a dozen soldiers in desert fatigues
Checking each big truck as it rolled in.
(Old song in my head: “Up in the morning,
out on the job, work like the devil for my pay

Winter sun rising over the mountains to the east
And turning the sky a milky white, then blue,
And the Joshua trees and desert grasses
Golden in the early light. Two things:
The trucks are the military side of the stimulus—
They are building new landing strips
For the new drones that are being rushed
Into production—military drones cost twelve million dollars
To build, thirty thousand dollars an hour to fly—and the heightened security
Must have been a result of the recent bombing
Of a CIA base in Afghanistan, where the drones
Used in Pakistan had done their targeting.
The Afghan drones are said to be targeted from Creech.

Reuters, January 2010:
51 drone air strikes in Pakistan in 2009
killing about 460 people (according
to Pakistani officials); 32 strikes in 2008,
killing 240 people.

The Economist, January 14, 2010:
A Pakistani organization “estimates 667 civilians
Killed by drones in 2009.”

The soldiers at the gate glance our way
And keep checking the IDs of the drivers.
We are standing on the unpaved verge of the freeway,
Twenty yards or so from the gate, and visible
To both the truckers and the Air Force personnel
Who are pulling up to their gate in late-model Chevies and Hondas.
They must be driving their first cars, many of them,
Bought on first loans from first jobs. Could imagine
The ads on local TV. American flags
Flashing on the screen.
Going to work on a Tuesday morning.

A Nevada State Highway Patrol cruiser pulls up behind us
And a tall, lean, middle-aged man gets out. “Good morning, folks.”
We had our signs out and Kat had begun to read Emily Dickinson poems
To the morning air. We said good morning.
“Just here to remind you of the rules. I’m here to protect your rights
and you have the right to stand on the dirt ground and exercise freedom of speech.
Standing on the tarmac is trespassing on federal property
And I will have to arrest you. That clear?”
Janet says she’s been here often and it’s very clear.
He says, “You have a good day,” starts to get into his cruiser
And then hesitates, “Would you folks mind telling me
If you’re planning to get arrested?” I am about to say we aren’t
And Janet says, an edge in her voice,
“We haven’t decided.” He nods and drives off. I say to Janet
“We’re not getting arrested, right? Why not make his day
a little easier?” Janet says, “We’re not here to make their days
easier.” This provokes a brief philosophical and strategic discussion
among us, and we get our water bottles from our backpacks,
put on more sunscreen, and face toward the incoming cars
and hold up our signs. Kat starts to read Emily Dickinson again:
A slumber did my spirit feel. I had no human fears.”

Predator drones are built by General Atomics
In Poway, California, near San Diego.

New York Times: “Air Force officials acknowledge that
More than a third of unmanned Predator spy planes (n.b.)
Have crashed, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Col. Eric Matthewson directs the Air Force task force
On “unmanned aerial systems. At a congressional hearing:
“I’ll be really candid…We’re on the ragged edge.”

The CIA is in charge of drone flights in Pakistan.
The Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A hundred ninety-five Predators in the Air Force fleet,
January 2010, and twenty-eight Raptors.
The total number of military drones (including
Tiny, hand-launched models) has “soared to 5,500
From 167 in 2001.

“Most of the crews sit in 1990s style computer banks
filled with screens, inside dimly lit trailers.
Many fly missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan on the same day.”

David Kilcullen, testifying to Congress:
“Since 2006 we have killed 14 senior Al Qaeda officials
using drone strikes. In the same period,
in the same area, we have killed 700 civilians.”

Eleven a.m. Witness can be a little boring.
I have mostly been holding up my sign
For the cacti and the Joshua trees to read.
Kat’s sign reads THERE IS ANOTHER WAY.
We’ve read, to no one in particular, Marianne Moore
And Gertrude Stein and Langston Hughes.
The sun almost noon high. When there is no traffic
You can hear the desert plants ticking in the heat.