Our submarine had entered the port of Bremerhaven, Germany for tests and trials of the fitted Sonars. The city of Bremerhaven was totally destroyed by the Allies in World War II but the port of Bremerhaven at the mouth of the River Weser was spared to serve them after the war. In modern times, the city of Bremen which is about 60 km away from Bremerhaven has now become a hub of industrial importance.
It was here in the main city of Bremen where some of my crew and I landed ashore. Apart from our official obligations of training on the sophisticated equipment that was fitted on the submarine, we did take out some time to see the sights. I was fascinated by the ancient city of Bremen and the various cultural and historic sights it had to offer. Amongst the various monuments in Bremen, the most captivating and intriguing one was that of the Town Musicians of Bremen. This is a statue of four animals, a donkey, dog, cat and cockerel (rooster) standing on top of each other. This bronze statue was erected to commemorate the folktale rewritten and adapted through the epochs as it had a very strong message to offer people. The legend pertaining to this monument dates back to many centuries and variations of which find mention in the folklore of Switzerland, Norway, Scotland, England, America, Spain, South Africa and also Japan.
The folktale is about four farm animals a donkey, dog, cat and cockerel (rooster) who having become old and weak escape death by their masters, as they have become useless on the farms. The donkey is the first in the chain to run away and who meets the dog, the cat and the rooster convincing them that they should all go to Bremen and start a new life as musicians. A rather unusual profession to pursue for farm animals. As they travel through the day, they come across a house where they observe some robbers feasting. Working together these animals scare off the robbers before settling down for a night’s rest. Soon the robbers return and these animals fight them off terrifying them into believing that there is a monster and a witch in the house as they stand atop each other and howl loudly. The combined braying of the donkey, barking of the dog, meowing of the cat and crowing of the rooster terrorises the robbers who take flight into the jungle. Thus these animals live peacefully for the rest of their lives.
This folktale is not famous about the animals and their fight with the robbers but of the lessons that it propagates, which are; people grow old and less useful by losing their ability to work, but with weakness of age comes wisdom. These animals in the story are old and weak but wise as they are able to outsmart the robbers who are stronger than them. Each of the animals in this story is forced to give up something they are good at and enjoyed doing in their earlier lives, yet by leaving their comfort zone and seeking something new, they find something better working collectively, even if it was not what they expected. The story also introduces the concept of death for children to understand that when farm animals become old they may have to be let go or put down.
There are a few morals that are hidden in the story the main one being respect for elders showing that even old people are still important and useful in everybody’s lives. The other morals of the story are about teamwork and how collectively a stronger enemy can be defeated. The third moral is about change and how in the later years of one’s life, change in one’s profession is possible for the better.
My stay in Bremen was very engrossing as I walked through its streets absorbing the authentic architecture, countryside and beautifully maintained town homes with their breath-taking parks.
I learnt to soak in history and culture by talking to the old and wise that I encountered in foreign lands. Firstly, I recall my frequent visits to the Submarine Memorial at Laboe, a suburb of Kiel. The U-Boat meaning Unterseeboot (Undersea boat) was the most dreaded weapon of the German Kriegsmarine (Navy). A visit to this memorial was always a hair raising experience giving goose bumps, to see the number of tablets with names engraved of crew members of the numerous U-Boats that had been sunk in both the World Wars. In WW-I alone, out of 375 submarines built by the German Navy about 180 were sunk destroying approximately 50 naval warships and nearly 6000 merchant and fishing vessels. During WW-II, out of the average 1150 German U-Boats in service nearly 800 had been sunk or damaged at sea and the balance scuttled in harbour at the end of the war. They had together sunk more than 200 warships and 3000 merchant ships. This memorial comprises of a tall tower representing a sinking ship going down vertically and has an old U-Boat positioned at its base which houses a museum.
His joy knew no bounds about meeting another submariner, albeit, from another part of the world and narrated to me some of his tales of his exploits in submarines during both the Great Wars
During one of my frequent visits to this memorial on Sunday mornings, as it was also my day of rest, I used to observe a very old man obviously a submariner with a flowing white beard and sea cap in his timeworn and frayed navy jacket, clean and polish the plaques and tablets there. Who else but a motivated submariner would brave the cold breeze in bad weather and do community service at that age? I once shared a cup of coffee with this gentleman introducing myself also to be a submariner from the Indian Navy. His joy knew no bounds about meeting another submariner, albeit, from another part of the world and narrated to me some of his tales of his exploits in submarines during both the Great Wars. Being a lone survivor from his crew in the Battle of Atlantic during WW-II, he spoke about Grand Admiral Karl Donitz’s Rudeltaktik (wolf pack tactics) about how U-Boats were employed to attack Allied merchant ship convoys escorted by the Royal Navy warships bringing supplies from America, Indian Ocean and even Singapore to the British Isles. He had served on the Type IX U-Boats that had reached even as far as Japan and the East coast of America.
This old gentleman although in his late eighties had made it his mission to visit the Submarine Memorial every week to clean the plaques and tablets of those who had been laid to rest. After about six months of regular visits, on one Sunday morning, I noticed he was absent and saw a middle aged lady sitting with moist eyes on the same bench that he used to frequent. Upon asking about the old gentleman, she told with a tear in her eye that her father had left to be on eternal patrol, a nautical term for departed submariners whose souls are expected to be on eternal patrol in heavenly seas. I learnt more about history during these interactions, gaining knowledge much more than any book could teach.
It was always a moment of pleasure to see her fully dressed with a chest full of medals walking ramrod stiff to church on Sunday mornings
My second encounter was with an old German lady about seventy years of age who was my immediate neighbour in Heikendorf, where I lived with two other colleagues in a house called “Anchorage”. Living alone, she was always up and about wanting to help in some way or the other. In summer, seeing me work late hours or being missing for a week or so during my frequent sea sorties, she used to willingly mow my lawn, clean the leaves from the driveway during autumn and sometimes shovel the snow during winter. Despite refusing to let her clean up my lawn, she used to do it anyway when I was away at work. I always felt so embarrassed to let a seventy year old lady do any of these chores but she was always sprightly and energetic.
I was her constant partner for tea on Saturday evenings. It was strange as to how we conversed in the initial days as my German was just as broken as her English. I learnt many stories about German culture, history, psychology and determination that she had to tell about the Great War, about how she had served in the Wehrmacht and how she partook in the various activities and assignments. It was always a moment of pleasure to see her fully dressed with a chest full of medals walking ramrod stiff to church on Sunday mornings. She in turn was intrigued about tales from India narrated by me and strangely became a fan of the Indian allspice “garam masala” which my mother had lovingly packed for me to use in Kiel and which I had gifted her.
My visit to Bremen, acquaintance with the Town Musicians and subsequent interactions with the old and bold certainly have helped me to view life with a different perspective. Travel and meeting people is the best form of learning about a place. For instance, I learnt from a colleague who had been to Riga in the erstwhile Soviet Union about seeing a similar statue there in the town square but with different animals. Coming back to the folktale of the Town Musicians of Bremen, the morals hidden in that tale are relevant even today. I can say with certainty that some of my life lessons learnt during my initial years in the Navy have served me in good stead till this day.
Travel to distant lands and interaction with locals will always remain the best form of education.
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