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August 13, 1998

Scientists: Germans #1 in beach horseplay

CAPE COD — Incidents of beach horseplay have skyrocketed on U.S. beaches during the past five years, a phenomenon that has long baffled scientists. Now a revolutionary new Harvard study claims to have found the answer, attributing the increase to the shenanigans of a huge influx of Germans on "holiday." horseplay.jpg (33663 bytes)

For the study, researchers combed Massachusetts beaches in search of German beachgoers. Specimens deemed suitable were sedated, tagged, and transported to the university’s special beach simulation chambers in the Harvard Science Center. There, researchers were able to observe the subjects in captivity and test their response to specific beach-related stimuli.

Harvard education professor Howard Gardner, the study’s executive director, treated the Weekly Week to a demonstration. With the press of a button, a robotic arm drops a whiffleball into a beach simulation chamber where "Udo," a Dusseldorf native captured while on holiday on Plum Island, and "Holger," his boyhood friend, are taking in some simulated sun.

The response is almost immediate.

"I will make you to eat this!" says Udo. He grabs the whiffleball and shoves it into Holger’s mouth. Holger wriggles away and dives for Udo’s feet. The two roll through the sand, grappling with the whiffleball. Udo (in what Dr. Gardner would later describe as a "wave of weltschmerz") stands, brushes his curly black hair behind his shoulders, and straightens the hem of his Speedo.

In a second demonstration, a bag of sandwiches is dropped into a chamber where "Dina" and "Karl" are frolicking.

"Hey Karl! I have brought us grinders!" cries Dina, raising the bag above her head. Karl mimes pulling Dina toward him on an invisible rope. Dina runs three times around their beach blanket and uses her capelike cover-up as a makeshift "shield" against Karl’s pursuit. "Put down your barriers!" shouts Karl, as he playfully puts the girl in a half-nelson and steals the sandwiches." Your defenses are useless!"

"It’s as if Americans have ‘unlearned’ the pleasures of beach tomfoolery," explains Gardner. "They sit under beach umbrellas. They stare at ad banners flown behind planes. They fish without enthusiasm. They will, perhaps, wade knee-deep into the surf and splash their arms, thighs, and torsos. But true horseplay is out of the question — it’s been buried in years of repressive American socialization."

Germans, on the other hand, have what Gardner calls a ‘pre-cognitive’ beach intelligence. "It’s quite beautiful to watch. They bury each other in the sand. They throw footballs, frisbees, and aerobies. Often they ‘accidentally’ throw one of these into the ocean and have to swim out after it. Let’s face it — the German people have an instinctive genius for sun ‘n’ fun."

Indeed, to the Germans, it is the Americans’ behavior that seems strange. "This Americans lazing about on their bellies remembers me of the Swiss who we have also seen on holiday," says subject "Udo," who describes himself as "fun with two n’s." "They mope about like this and that and will not stay up all night gambling and boozing and going to auto races."

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