Fleet's in

posted 10 February 2005 (updated 15 February 2005)

U.S.S. O'Bannon Yesterday morning at breakfast time, large naval vessels were passing the mouth of the bay, and as we drove to the lab, one of them steamed in and took up station opposite and a little seaward of the ponton. It launched one of those sleek new pointy-nosed helicopters, which circled the bay several times, hovering here and there to study anchored yachts and buildings on the shore, before disappearing around the point toward Nice. A second helicopter, of a different design, was parked on the deck. David thinks the ship is basically a submarine hunter and that the second helicopter is used to tow acoustic detectors.

Apparently there was some sort of high-level NATO meeting in Nice today (why in the world would they schedule it for the chaos of the morning after carnaval?), so some sort of embargo was in place on boating, and I imagine each town for several miles on either side got inspected. Other ships sailed back and forth across the mouth of the bay at intervals.

Anyway, I whipped out the binoculars I carry around in my purse for birdwatching and had a look. It was American, but I couldn't read the signal flags it was flying. I noted the numbers painted on the bow--987--and when I got to my office, looked it up on the internet. It was the USS O'Bannon, a Spruance-class destroyer based in Mayport, Florida (its identity was later confirmed when it turned so that we could read the name painted across the transom). When I passed that information on to David over lunch on the ponton and wondered aloud what a "Spruance" was, he answered, straight-faced and right off the top of his head, that Admiral Spruance commanded the U.S. Naval forces in the battle of Midway. Doesn't everybody know that stuff?

While we watched, the helicopter came back and circled the bay again, and a large zodiac with twin outboards, flying the French flag and loaded with six or eight of what David called "extremely pursuasive people" in combat gear (visible in the photo just to the right of the O'Bannon's bow; that's Cap Ferrat in the background), slowly and continuously circled the ship--apparently they're very careful about being sneaked up on by small boats since the USS Cole. Eventually, though, a small and obviously civilian boat came out from the harbor and rendezvoused with the destroyer, on the far side, so we couldn't really see what happened--had that guy in the orange jacket gone on board the ship?--then cast off but hung around a while before heading back to shore. We had three hypotheses: (a) it was the local fishmonger delivering lobsters, (b) it was the mayor coming out to exchange pleasantries, and (c) it was the harbor pilot. I studied the signal flags they ran up and confirmed later that it was the last--the "code or replying pennant" plus the "H" flag means "I have a pilot aboard" (I love the internet). Sure enough, by the time we left for home, the ship had sailed away. Now, though, about 10:30 p.m., something large and well lit is anchored out there, and the helicopter went by again a while ago, so I think it's back.

Villefranche has a long history with the U.S. Navy--the Mediterranean fleet was based here until the late '50's, when de Gaulle threw all the foreigners out of France. The lab, like most academic institutions, is staffed almost entirely with people from somewhere else, but Evelyn the custodian has lived here all her life and remembers when the days of the fleet. We were talking about it just the day before, when she was explaining to me her taste for American food--like cheeze whiz, peanut butter, maple syrup, barbecue sauce, and cakes decorated in colors not found in nature--which everyone here teases her about. Those were the treats of her childhood, available from the PX. After the Americans left, it was apparently a long time before hamburger buns were available again--the locals had to eat their burgers on slices from the large-diameter "restaurant" baguettes. You can find them now, but (she assures me), they're still not really the same.

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