Sea story: scooping the spy satellites (1972)

Gaeta, Italy. Most mornings when the US Sixth Fleet flagship is in home port, I coast down the steep hill from our apartment building on the very top of the Monte Elena. I stop my bicycle at the kiosk in the town square, and buy the daily papers from Naples, Milan, Paris and Rome. Then I ride to the ship.

the office building

the office building

The first thing I do in my office is read the papers and type up a short précis about what the press in Italy and France has to say today. I send copies to the Chief of Staff and to the Intelligence Officer (N-2). It’s just a little thing I do, since I am reading the papers anyway, and the Admiral and his staff find the summaries interesting.

1973 Protocol Officer at work

my office

One afternoon, the N-2 stopped by my office with a wry smile on his face. I looked up from my work, but it would have been awkward to try to stand up for him in my cramped space.

“Can I help you, Captain?” I asked.

“London called on the secure phone this morning,” he said. “London” meant CINCUSNAVEUR, the Commander, US Naval Forces Europe. “Washington wants to know why we keep reporting so much activity in Libya when we don’t have any people on the ground.” It had been a while since Col. Qaddafi had evicted all Americans from the country. Obviously N-2 was forwarding my little reports up the chain of command.

“Is it something in my daily summaries?” I asked, worried that I had crossed some unwritten boundary in the shady world of intelligence collection.

“I explained what you do. They were just surprised that we had such high-quality information before the regular intelligence agencies. It all gets confirmed or at least corroborated by satellite, and I think it’s driving JCS and NSA nuts.”

working a rig in Libya

working a rig in Libya

“But Libya is local news in Naples,” I said. “There are thousands of Italian engineers working there, not to mention the Italian reporters who follow what is happening with them. Their families mostly live in Naples, and they read Il Mattino.

The N-2 smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. “Just keep the translations coming, Jonathan.”


Trip update: Sunday I arose refreshed, had breakfast, and locked up the flat. I walked 800 m to the Formia train station, pushing the big four-wheeled suitcase that I bought in Miami last November. It’s my only piece of “normal” luggage. At 1122, the Intercity 590 took me to Bologna is a little under five hours.2016-Bisenzio It was an overcast day, but warm. The brilliant spring-time green around the Bisenzio River between Prato and Bologna completely hid the fact that a miserable winter with snow and flooding had plagued this beautiful valley since Cheryl and I had ridden this way last summer.

2016-autobus-bologna-tperMonday, I took a painful, one-hour bus ride to the Bologna Book Fair. I could have walked it faster, but the crush of passengers kept me from even getting off. The traffic moved at a snail’s pace to the Fair. After taking the bus back in the evening, IMG_20160405_105752I immediately rented a city bike near the train station. Getting around was much easier after that, because Bologna is a flat city, with many bike lanes and bike paths.

2016-Bologna Childrens Book FairThe Bologna Book Fair overloaded my senses. I had wanted to visit the largest children literature event on the planet for more than 30 years, but I had not been in Italy in April until now. I only expected to walk around and check things out, because I was a “newbie,” but on the first day I met two self-publishers and found myself discussing an exciting translation/adaptation project with a publisher about a brand new non-fiction book. IMG_20160404_113157My friend and colleague Denise Muir arrived on the second day. It was her fourth Bologna Book Fair, so she was able to answer some questions. We shared a few of the many sessions.

The Fair wrapped up on Thursday afternoon. Friday, I took the Frecciarossa train to Rome, where Nando Marcucci had my sport coat and two pairs of trousers ready for me. I have had suits made for me, but they were extensively modified garments that had already been cut out. These were made from the cloth that Cheryl and I selected last September. The afternoon train brought me back to Formia. Today I am out riding, trying to recover from the relative physical inactivity of the last week.

LIMG_20160407_100849itfire, a self-publishing firm in Atlanta, Georgia, passed out free bags at the Book Fair, with a saying that I found particularly fitting. Here is another one of my million.


I hope to be rolling north in three weeks. Next week, I would like to examine whether I am really living on the road, and how my original plan has morphed over the last two and a half years. Some of you have been following me for all or most of that time. What is your impression?

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


2 thoughts on “Sea story: scooping the spy satellites (1972)

  1. Jonathan,

    Ah yes! That inevitable creature “change”. Perspective: I do not own a bicycle. I particularly enjoy the stories of your youth overseas and your sea stories. Recently, I read somewhere that with the growing wave of American Baby Boomer Generation retirements, there is a corresponding growth of interest in the subject of the American expatriat experience. To me this suggests a kind of how-to with personal stories for concreteness. I am certain that whatever direction(s) you choose to go will result in interesting and valuable content.


    • Dave,
      Thanks for the input. Apparently, you echo the situation and interests of many others who don’t ride a bicycle. Your comment reminds me that the young reporters and history students have switched from recording oral histories of WWII veterans to trying to record Vietnam-era vets before they go. I had not thought of opening a perspective for the expat experience, but I have been navigating the bureaucracies of Europe. “Living on the road” is not the same as tourism, and maybe I need to provide a more deliberate look at the difference. Thanks.


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