In My Bathtub, I’m The Captain!
by Pastor George Van Alstine

Don’t ask me what internet trail I followed to stumble on this gem! On YouTube I found a catchy little cabaret song from around 1937, entitled “In Meiner Badewanne Bin Ich der Kapitän.” You’re right; there was no English translation. I was curious about it’s meaning, so I had to look up the words I didn’t recognize. The title translates as “In My Bathtub, I’m the Captain.”

I was not able to find the lyrics in English, and it was tough to uncover them even in German. Once again I had to become a laborious translator, and here’s what I came up with:

Everyone wants to be boss of his life; everyone wants to be somebody.
He wants to be emperor, but like Napoleon, he may have a big appearance and still be short.
Not everyone can be boss, because then no one would work. But . . .
In my bathtub, I’m the captain!
I can play with the wet soap and create beautiful bubbles by stirring up the sea.
I am a man of action. I turn on the faucet whenever I want.
I am a wild sea pirate on the wide ocean.
When I’m tired of the game, I pull the plug really fast;
As the water goes down the drain, I call out:
“Attention! S.O.S! Danger!”
In my bathtub, I’m the captain!
It’s great to be captain!

It took me a little while to find that the song’s author was a German cabaret composer by the name of Otto Berco. I have not yet been able to find much information about Berco, except the name of another song he wrote, and it was in Yiddish. This undoubtedly means that he was Jewish. A German Jew writing in 1937 and comparing his bathtub captain to Napoleon? Could he have been satirizing another short, pompous “emperor” whose initials were A.H.? If so, what a clever way of putting Hitler’s grandiosity into perspective! I can picture some Nazi general and his girlfriend, singing half-drunk in a cabaret without realizing they were making fun of Der Fuhrer.

There’s a small sub-plot in each of our life stories in which we are bathtub captains. We save the helpless maiden, find the cure for cancer, win on “American Idol,” thwart a terrorist plot, are voted “Miss ABC” in a beauty contest. We may see ourselves as losers in our work, our school or our family life, and still be winners in our recurrent bathtub-captain dreams. That’s OK; we need our fantasy escapes.

But when we take exaggerated images of ourselves too seriously, we may be in trouble. I can’t help but think of one of America’s most famous poems, “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), which ends with the memorable lines,

I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.

Henley was remarkable in his ability to withstand harsh physical limitations throughout his short (died at 53) life, including bone disease, the amputation of one leg and years in a sanitarium. We can applaud his bravery in proclaiming that he is “captain” of his own soul. But in his poem he seems to go out of his way to reject the need for God’s help. He tips his hat with the words

I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.

But his main praise is for himself:

I have not winced nor cried aloud . . . My head is bloody, but unbowed . . .
And yet the menace of the years finds and shall find me unafraid.

When all is said and done, Henley’s poem seems to me to be just another bathtub-captain story. When he shakes his fist at the fates, he’s not demonstrating that he’s truly in charge of his own destiny. He’s just making more soap bubbles.