George Dibbern: His Life and Quest

Adventurer ~ Sailor-Philosoper ~ Free Thinker ~ Self-declared Citizen of the World

Sample: Chapter 1 “Kindred Soul”

Fleisch! Fleisch! The words rang throughout the barracks. He was of slight build, a not particularly tall five feet nine inches, with a full head of unruly brown hair streaked with well-earned grey, a generous nose, accentuated in photographs—of which there had been many. But it was the penetrating steel-blue eyes, the air of self-confidence, the cocky stance the almost arrogant body language that were remembered about this man. And his upbeat nature—always infusing an element of humour and drama into any situation. Making people laugh. Somebody had to keep up the spirits of the forty men in Hut 5.

The machete-like knife he wielded through the air was the signal to the hot meal that punctuated the middle of each long day, day after day. Fleisch! Fleisch! A slab of meat whacked onto out-reached plates. Sometimes the cry was an equally ebullient Kartoffel! Kartoffel! as he plopped down a hunk of potato. Meat and potatoes and cabbage. Meat and potatoes and turnips. Plentiful enough, but monotonous. And again. And another day to be crossed off the calendar.

While washing up the billies in the camp kitchen George had plenty of time for reflection. He could put up with a lot, but the cold and dampness were really a bother to his arthritis and while it was not yet debilitating, it was an annoying reminder that he was getting on, that his allotment of life was being used up and that he really did prefer those paradisaic islands where he’d experienced so many heart—and body—warming times, those many years ago.

How long had it been this time? Four years and four months, almost to the day. Whatever name they called this place, it was nothing short of prison. Minimum security perhaps, in prison terms, but prison nonetheless. Confined to an island; limited freedom of movement dictated by the fact that Somes Island was in the middle of Wellington Harbour where the navigation light guided arrivals and departures of navy and merchant vessels. Guards. Sentries.

Barbed wire. Roll call twice a day. Mail only three times a week and heavily censored at that. One visitor permitted once a week, but never the same visitor two weeks in a row. All for the fact of his being German, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He and Eileen had long ago agreed it wasn’t worth the time and the cost of the five-hour train trip for her to travel down from Napier. Nor the challenge of connecting with water transport to the island, then hoping for good crossing conditions. Not for a one hour visit with a table between them (no touching allowed) and a guard listening to their every word. They remained in contact by mail, but there wasn’t much they could write about that failed to trigger the censors’ cutting instinct.

Mail. There hadn’t been much of that lately. It seemed ages since he’d heard from Elisabeth. He wondered how she and the girls were managing in Germany. His daughters would be in their twenties now. It had been that long. What horrible times and conditions to be entering adulthood. Once again he wondered: had he done the right thing in leaving? Of course he knew in his heart, in his gut, that they would not have been any better off had he stayed.

And he knew that he’d simply had no choice but to go. The passion that had first brought him and Elisabeth together would not have been enough to balance the differences in their personalities, their backgrounds and their expectations of life. George knew that, but every now and then a hint of guilt crept into his soul—guilt, only because of the expectations of society. A man with a wife and children did not simply take off and leave them. That was considered abandonment, irresponsibility, selfishness. It was so hard to explain to people in a way they could understand.

He loved them all, by God he did. And he missed them terribly. It left an ache that nothing could ever displace. But he rationalised as he had so many times before — he couldn’t have stayed. The love that inspired their marriage would have deteriorated into a squabbling mess. It had already begun. He’d had to face the fact that he wasn’t cut out for domesticity, particularly not in Germany, not in the thirties. With no training to satisfy rigid German standards he had little to look forward to. He could see what was happening in the country of his birth and his outspokenness had already begun to draw attention to him and the family. He had seen too much of a different way of living to settle into a humdrum existence of routine and small-mindedness. By leaving them he had made it easier for them to get financial help from friends and the state; they were better off without him. People seemed to think he felt nothing, lost nothing for his action. They didn’t appear to understand that he, too, suffered,that his unrealised desire to be part of his daughters’ lives left a painful emptiness in him. He could only hope that someone was giving to them what he was trying to give to other young people. What he tried to give Eileen.

Now that George had finished washing-up he was free for the rest of the day. He struggled into his rain gear. His right shoulder and elbow were paining him again—his tiller arm, the one that hauled in the sails. When would he get to sail again? He headed outside for some fresh air. He needed to clear the cobwebs from his mind. Being landlocked, this restriction of movement was mind-numbing, spirit-dulling. He wasn’t especially interested in gardening—too much like the farm he’d left in Germany. He wasn’t particularly adept with his hands. Oh he’d made a couple of paua brooches, and a cribbage board that he’d sent to Günter, but they weren’t any great works of art. Not like the creations some of the others produced. He’d had four years on this island and could have written another book. But there just wasn’t the motivation. One felt so in limbo. Waiting . . . wondering . . vegetating. That’s what this place did to you. Even though he had his own cubicle with a little table there was so little privacy. It was impossible to focus, to get thoughts organised. His eyes, too, were a problem—to be expected at age fifty-six, of course. Mind you, the reading glasses he’d received last August helped. But there was no proper light. Ach, he could think of any number of excuses, but the fact was he just didn’t feel like doing much of anything.

Lost in thought, George nodded a greeting to the guard. In an unusually reflective mood he avoided the customary banter and his gaze reached out to sea. Somes Island had long ago been stripped of its trees and the wind blew relentlessly. It felt good. The tang of the sea air stung his nostrils. It exhilarated his spirit. Eileen. Did he love her? Of course he did. But what version of love? The Eskimos had the right idea. What was it, twenty words for snow? How many different words were required to define the nuances of love? The lashing of the moisture-laden wind from the northwest—no wonder his arm was bothering him—took him back to the hurricane they had survived on the way back from Hawaii. It seemed an eternity ago, yet he could remember the details as if it were last week. He recalled that survival instinct which enables you to react automatically, and the sense of fatalism, the sense of placing yourself in God’s hands, followed by the awe at having survived, the wonder of why you were allowed to survive.

George recalled the many times he’d been snatched from the grasp of almost-certain death, no question in his mind that there had been divine intervention. But why? For this? Was this just another trial placed in his path of personal growth? Well, he would handle it, just as he had those hundred days off the coast of California, not giving in. Things could be a lot worse. A whole lot worse. All those lives lost at war, all those innocent people suffering, all thatsenseless destruction. Here he was in relative comfort, lacking nothing really,except freedom—but that was the most precious of all. That was what these past fifteen years had been about: freedom and friendship and love. He had tried to get others to at least understand his way of thinking, even if they could not accept his way of life for themselves. Everyone had a role in life. His own mission, to which he had been called, to which he was destined, for he had not really chosen, was to break down barriers, to be a bridge of friendship. He wasn’t bitter. He knew he could have avoided internment, but back in1941 he had thought challenging the status quo was the right thing to do, that it would be worthwhile and could perhaps make a difference in people’s thinking. Some days it seemed as though it was all a waste of lifetime, but who was he to say? He had learned to take a day at a time and to try to make the best of it, to lighten the mood of the others. He was good at that.

‘A born storyteller.’ He’d often been told so, and he knew it was true. He was at his best when before an audience, when he could share with others his experiences and the lessons he had learned at sea. He loved the radio talks and the presentations to all those clubs and schoolchildren—especially the children. He recalled the time a young boy had to be taken out of the church hall because the little fellow had become ‘seasick’ through the vividness of his storytelling. No fancy photos or slide shows—not for Captain George Dibbern! The power of the word was sufficient if you knew how to use it. If only more people were open to what he had to say about the need for love and friendship between individuals and among nations. The sad part was that there was nothing new in what he had to say, it had all been said before, many times before, but still people didn’t listen, or didn’t understand, or perhaps didn’t want to understand.

George looked up at the sky. Anyone else would have seen a dull, oppressive grey with ominous dark clouds, but to him the sky was full of drama and revelation. He had learned to read the clouds and to admire them and to respectwhat they told him. And right now they were telling him of an impending dump of cold and wet, something he could do without. He took a few final deep breaths of the salt-laden air that infused him with impatience and longing for his beloved Te Rapunga. He knew Eileen was doing the best she could in maintaining her, but a boat ought to be sailing, not moored at some dock, impounded and chained. What an event that had been! Described as the ‘first New Zealand port seizure of the war’, his thirty-two foot, seven-ton nutshell of a ketch was eclipsed six months later by the seizure of the 2798-ton barque, Pamir. One might say his little ‘fatty’ was in good company. He shook his head as he pondered the ridiculous situations engendered by war. He would never understand.

It was getting colder and darker. Might as well go back inside and check for mail, for what that was worth. He wrote but never got answers from the family in Germany. Letters either got lost en route—everything was in such a statef turmoil out there—or they simply didn’t write. To be fair, they were struggling to survive, under what conditions he knew not. And he had no idea where Doe had ended up. Maybe she was in England with Albrecht. Good old Doe. And Günter was so engrossed in his new life and family he didn’t write—not that he had ever been a letter writer, but still, you’d think he would stay in touch after all they had been through together. At least he was spared internment.The Australians seemed bigger-minded than the New Zealanders. There were still occasional letters from Gladys. The vision of beautiful, slender,graceful Gladys unfolded before him. She had found someone she wanted to share her life with, someone also interested in living at one with the sea. He was happy for her and satisfied that he had instilled in her a passion for sailing. He smiled when he thought the word passion, for passion there had certainly been between them. But it had been clear from the start that this was not for the long term; he would not give up the family. They’d had such fun and Gladys had been such a help in typing the book. Ah yes, the book.

The wind intensified and tore at his jacket as George headed back to Hut 5. He could smell the rain coming and feel the drop in barometric pressure. How humiliating it was to have to ask for everything. It was especially difficult after one had known the freedom of the sea, which is humbling, of course, but there is a great difference between humiliating and humbling. He could accept the latter but had difficulty with the former. He still had many of life’s lessons to learn. By the time he approached the barracks’ leader, most of the mail had been claimed. Not surprising. Mail, such as it was, was a lifeline. He chuckled at the thought of the games some played with the censors, intentionally writing things verboten simply to annoy them and give them something to do. The lengths these bureaucrats went to in order to control the ‘subversive’ activities of these interned ‘spies’. A year previously they had introduced a form of glossy paper which would facilitate the detection of any attempt at secret writing. Did they think they were all concocting invisible ink in an attempt to divulge military secrets to their girlfriends?

There actually was a letter for him. Mildly surprised, George examined the post mark. USA. California. Boy, that was a long time ago. It was in 1933 that he and Doe and Walter had motored along that section of rugged California coast. He’d pretty well lost touch with the gang from those days. The return address was not much help. ‘Henry Miller, Big Sur, California.’ He retired to his cubicle and with increasing curiosity removed the letter from the previously opened envelope. Looked as though this one got through without any cuts. He stretched out on his bunk and began to read. The letter had been typed on 17 April 1945.

Dear George Dibbern . . . great pleasure and instruction on reading the book Quest. . . learned from publishers . . . once again prisoner of war . . . are you allright . . . discovered wonderful book through George Leite—George vaguely recalled him—good friend Emil White is a good friend and distant relative of Dr. Bertel.—Dear Bertel. That was going even further back in time. Coincidence.How often had his life been shaped by coincidence.

He read on . . . send you a book . . . from the publishers . . . The Power Within Us. . . I hope you are not reading much now, but writing. Your book is a wonderfulhuman document, a spiritual more than a physical saga. I felt that you were abrother, and it’s as a brother that I write you and pray that you are well. All your reflections about life, about war, about people, about the Bible, impressed me deeply. So few men think for themselves. That’s what made your book a feast.

George jumped up from his bunk. He felt ready to explode. Someone who understood! Finally someone who grasped the message he was trying to impart. Someone who cared enough to write and let him know. A brother, no less! He did a little jig for joy. He’d have done a handstand as he used to while dictating Quest— if there had been room in his restricted quarters. Besides there was more: I always wondered, of course, whether you would continue cruising about, whether you would find nothing but disillusionment whenever you put ashore. The purpose of self-liberation, which you seem to have achieved, is torejoin society . . . He sure had rejoined society, a very select society. He laughed aloud at the irony . . . but how difficult, especially when it’s the kind of world we now have . . . The more you succeed in freeing yourself from passions and prejudices, from stupid fetishes and inhibitions, the less place there is for you in the world. That’s how it seems. I know something of what it’s all about, because I made a similar struggle all my life. The feeling of being cut off is an agony. What a soul mate! Who was this Henry Miller?

The letter continued. Miller explained that he now lived midway between Monterey and St. Simeon, that he had lived in Europe for ten years, mostly in Paris, and had found spiritual calm in Greece about which he’d written a book, The Colossus of Maroussi. Aha, so this Henry Miller was an author. Never heard of him, but that wasn’t surprising. The library here didn’t provide anything new in the way of books. So . . . his ancestors came from Germany, and he had visited there in the twenties . . . ah, but he didn’t care much for the life there even then. No kidding! France was more to his liking. One felt free there.

This is just to let you know how a book sometimes reaches out and finds warm friends in some unexpected place. I shall send it on its way now—to the four quarters of the earth. You must have friends everywhere. You breathe a spirit as warm and large as Walt Whitman’s. I salute you as one of the good, honest men of the earth, one we shall always be proud of. So it really had been worth it. There actually were people out there who understood. If only Elisabeth could readthis letter. Here was full justification for his decision to follow the path in life that fate had chosen.

Call on me if there is anything you think I can do for you. Your book should be translated into many languages. Has it? There I might really be able to help. Let me know. A friend. Signed Henry Miller. Ah yes, George sighed wearily, translate Quest into German. How strange: a book written in English by a German, translated back into German. He could do that himself. In fact he’d had four years in which he could have done it. Some day. For now, he would savour the thrill of having a ‘brother’.

Chapter 2: Birth of a Sailor 1889–1907

Georg Johann Dibbern was born on 26 March 1889 to Emma Dibbern and her husband Adolph Friedrich Dibbern, in Kiel, Germany. A late-life baby,with sisters Marie and Anni, twelve and ten years his senior, he was the much doted-on ‘baby’ of the family. Georg’s father was born on 1 September 1845 in Wellingdorf, now a suburb of Kiel. Adolph came from mostly solid maritime stock whose ancestors had long been connected with the sea as sailors and boatmen. A few were farmers. His was a large family and his own father, when asked, would proudly reply that he had had twelve children, completely ignoring the one girl who made the total, in fact, thirteen. It was as if he considered […]