Yes, I am afraid of heights. The haymow in the barn or the top of the playground slide set my childhood heart racing, and the mere thought of driving over any bridge crossing the Ohio River paralyzes me with fear.
My acrophobia notwithstanding, however, when I am enclosed in a room or an airplane cabin, I do not suffer from that paranoid fear of falling into some abyss. Safely ensconced, I can actually enjoy the view from an elevated position.
My European travels afforded me ample opportunity to observe the ground from the air. I always marveled at the Monopoly-like houses and barns scattered among asphalt ribbons traversed by toy cars. That sensation of leaving the earth, with forests and streams and fields receding, never grew old.
Equally fascinating were the landings. My favorite occurred in Ireland – a patchwork of quaint fields in every size and shape formed a remarkable, lush green quilt. And after a month of adventures away from home, there was no substitute for watching tiny, familiar landmarks regain their proper size during the final approach to Vandalia.
The vantage point of my very first view of Germany in 1969, however, was not from the Icelandic Airlines propeller plane in which our group crossed the Atlantic. Our professor met us in Luxemburg and drove us under cover of night to the German city of Trier.
A few hours later I gazed from my upper floor hotel room to witness the bustle of morning rush hour complete with trams and bicycles and real German people – a scene in which I myself would participate for years to come.
Of all the tall structures in Europe – church steeples, mountain tops, the Eifel Tower in Paris, the Victory Column in Berlin – my favorite “high place” was Munich’s Olympic Tower overlooking the site of the 1972 games.
From up there, my students and I viewed Olympic Park itself, distinguished by unique, cabled webbing and beautiful landscaping. The boys especially delighted in the four cylindrical towers of BMW headquarters and the nearby BMW museum in the form of a bowl, whose flat roof featured the iconic Bavarian-blue and white symbol.
The wider view, particularly on clear days, provided a magnificent panorama of red-tiled roofs and green spaces. Good eyesight and even better imagination occasionally allowed a hint of an Alp in the distance.
Downtown I discovered a cozy, third-floor coffee shop overlooking the Marienplatz, the central square of Munich. By the window with my cup of cappuccino, I surveyed structures that bordered the pedestrian-only expanse: City Hall with its historical architecture, outdoor cafés, stands stocked with fresh berries and tomatoes, as well as the Gothic spires of the Cathedral of Our Lady – familiar sites that grew in beauty and significance with each visit.
An inveterate people watcher, I relished the chance to observe tourists – and their cameras – gathered for the dance of the Glockenspiel figures. I lost myself in scenes of commuters hustling to and from subway stops, shoppers toting fresh-cut flowers and long loaves of bread, young lovers strolling arm-in-arm.
Then there was my virtual map experience, sometime in the 1980’s, well before the Berlin wall and military border between the two Germanys passed into history. Our hosts organized a visit to Braunschweig, about an hour from our partner school.
Much to my acrophobic horror, we traveled by ski lift to an observation point in the Harz Mountains. The trip was worth the fright of rattling over cable supports, as my students and I saw first-hand the actual physical, barricaded boundary marking the Cold War division between the two halves of Germany.
Cultural events and athletic contests both offer cheap seats. Having experienced ballets and operas from “up there,” it is no surprise that in 1982 I found myself in the nosebleed section of St. John Arena at the state wrestling tournament.
Fearing the steep steps, I remained glued to my seat as the Falcon grapplers, well, grappled. Although I cheered them all on, I especially wanted to witness Jim Jordan’s fourth consecutive state title and brother Jeff’s third and to applaud my former students in their history-making victories.
I simultaneously saw so much and so little. St.Paris-Graham, the GHS name in wrestling circles, went on to win the whole thing that night, amid great team and fan excitement. But from way up in the rafters, all I really saw were lots of tiny ants rolling around on lots of lined-up mats. At one point, I even cheered for the wrong black-and-white clad wrestler!
Although it has been my good fortune to visit a few great elevated sights of the world, the two most memorable were not tourist destinations at all: they were home.
All year long I waited for the beautiful, calming view from the balcony and living room of Ingrid and Hubert’s home in Voelksen. Even now I can conjure up their small, familiar neighborhood and the idyllic scene of northern German fields and woods beyond.
Even deeper in my heart is the child’s eye view from our second-floor bedroom on River Road. Every season of fifteen years happened outside our windows: first snows, pink cherry-tree fluff, mid-summer greens, glorious butternut tree gold before winter’s nap. Oh, I have reveled in seasonal transitions for many years in many places, but none so sweetly-carefree as the ones I viewed from…up there…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.