Portland, Straight Up

by Cliff Gallant
by Cliff Gallant


There’s this wooded hideaway place not very far from downtown Portland that I’ve been going to for years, and it’s always been great, but I’m afraid it’s over. It’s been discovered, or I’ve been discovered there, whichever. Pictures or even videos of me sitting on the flat rock drinking a can of Bud could have already circulated the globe. For all I know, people in Hunan Province are ogling images of me in my secret spot, so I figure I might as well come clean to my hometown.

This concerns a flying object I’m not even sure I know how to name, much less have any understanding of. All I know is it made me and the chipmunks, who live under the flat rock and come out to eat peanuts at my feet, feel very creepy. And you could be next, whoever you are, wherever you are.

It was mid-afternoon on a hot day in late June, sunlight slanting through the trees. The chipmunks were nibbling away and I was reposing contentedly, imbibing in the indicated manner. Just so you know, I don’t always indulge at my wooded hideaway, but, as fate would have it, I was doing so that day.

The chipmunks heard it before I did, and scurried back under the flat rock. I didn’t know what was up, but I knew it was big. Chipmunks don’t suddenly desert perfectly good peanuts for no good reason. Then I heard it, too — a low-volume mechanical buzzing — but I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. I looked this way and that, then realized it was coming from above.

I glanced up and there it was, about 25 feet directly overhead: an orange and red, disc-shaped object, about the diameter of a basketball, moving sideways at a slow, steady pace. An alien space station if I ever saw one, which I haven’t, but you get the point.

When it was just a few yards to the side of me, the thing stopped still and hovered. They’re going to let down a ladder, I thought, then little aliens will climb down and maybe come over and ask me for directions. I work part-time as a tour guide, so they’d have hit the jackpot. I could not only orient them around town, I could also tell them quite a bit about local history, if they had the time. Wow, this is really going to put my foreign-language app to the test, I said to myself.

But no. After a moment the thing moved on, gliding across the tops of the trees and over to the side of an apartment building partly visible from the wooded hideaway. After hovering briefly in front of the building, it rose and went over the roof, out of my sight. I sat there cursing myself for not carrying a camera.

As it turned out, this was not an isolated incident. A week or so later I was sitting on the grass of the Eastern Prom with some friends, watching the Fourth of July fireworks, when out of nowhere an object resembling the one I had seen at my hideaway appeared in the sky, moving at that same slow, steady pace. The only difference was this one was lit with orange and red pulsating lights, it being nighttime. At first people said it was either a plane or a helicopter, but when it stopped and hovered near the fireworks it became obvious that it wasn’t a plane, and it was too small to be a helicopter.

“Hey, it’s a drone!” called out a know-it-all 10-year-old sitting with his family on a blanket nearby.

So now I knew the name of what I had seen at the hideaway. I still didn’t really know what a drone was, but at least I knew I hadn’t had a close encounter of the third kind.

Then, while walking down Munjoy Hill after the fireworks, we spotted three of them flying by some apartment buildings on Sheridan Street. They were evenly spaced a few yards apart from one another, moving at that now familiar speed. “That would creep me out if I lived in one of those buildings,” a woman in our group said.

That’s when I decided to look into this. The next day I described the drones to a techie friend and she had some interesting things to tell me, including a story about the first one I’d seen. That one, she said, is operated by a local business owner who’s keeping watch on the activities of the homeless population in the neighborhood.

Drones come equipped with camcorders, she explained, and the business owner puts pictures and videos of people up on Facebook and other social media sites when they’re observed doing bad things. I was unable to confirm this or find any posts that fit that description, though. She said the drone was probably filming me when it stopped and hovered, just as the one on the Fourth was filming the fireworks. As to why the one I saw at the hideaway hovered in front of the apartment building, or what the three of them were doing on Sheridan Street, one can only guess.

This prompted me to look into restrictions on the use of drones, and I found that Rep. Diane Russell, who represents Portland’s East End in the Legislature, had a bill of hers passed in the last session that requires law-enforcement agencies to get a warrant before they use drones for investigations. Another bill — this one submitted by Rep. Russell Black, of Wilton — would have imposed restrictions on the private ownership and use of drones, but it was defeated.

Black told me he introduced the bill at the behest of the Maine Farm Bureau, based on its members’ concerns about competitors flying drones over their fields to determine how the crops were doing and when they were likely to go to market. That kind of inside knowledge could give the competing grower an advantage, allowing them to get their crop to market first and reap higher profits.

This seems like a reasonable concern, but one reason Black’s bill was defeated is the longstanding legal principle that individuals do not own the airspace above their property. The FAA was all over that one a long time ago. So, for the moment, in the words of Rep. Black, “We’ve got a free-for-all going on out there.”

Yeah, at least for the moment, you can get a drone at Walmart or wherever for not a lot of money and do pretty much what you want with it. I have to assume that if anyone’s got some high-tech weirdo Peeping Tom thing in mind, that won’t work. There must be laws regarding that sort of thing that trump the lack of laws restricting drones.

But what about less intrusive invasions of privacy? Can we sit in our backyards and be alone? Can we ever be truly alone anywhere anymore? Should arrogant busybodies, like the business owner who allegedly sent the drone over my wooded hideaway, be allowed to monitor our lives and share what they find out about us with the entire world?

You know what? I’m still going to go to my wooded hideaway, sit on the flat rock, feed peanuts to the chipmunks, and even have a beer now and then. See you in the movies.

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