Creatively Circumventing Checkpoint Charlie

Our first official visit in Berlin is not related to World War, itself, but to one of its legacies: Checkpoint Charlie. The museum is far more than a checkpoint station and warning signs now: There are rooms tracing the decline from triumph at the end of World War II into the Cold War, a great deal of politics during the Cold War, an entire room for Ronald Reagan, and exhibits looking into the future of tolerance. Of particular interest to our class were the many examples of those attempting to cross the wall, from East to West. It highlights both the human drive for freedom and the ingenuity we are capable of when needed.

Many of the escapes are fascinating examples of overcoming functional fixedness, our tendency to think of objects in terms of what they were designed to do rather than all of the things they can do. Two suitcases are not merely for holding clothes on a trip; they can each have a flap cut into the side, so that a woman can hide in them when they are placed side-by-side. A petrol drum, two hollowed-out surfboards, even a plastic cow can become human holders.

How did the escapees and “escape helpers” overcome functional fixedness to devise these daring escapes? Well, we know that breaking down an object into its component parts can help overcome functional fixedness, and some insight or accident may have occurred to help them see, for example, a speaker box not as a way to make loud sounds, but as a large box that would be expected to be quite heavy. The monotony of daily life before the escape attempt would also have provided plenty of time to let the mind wander and improve creativity. Although it would be quite difficult to go back and survey the personalities of those who successfully crossed the wall, we could reasonably bet that they would show some of the traits of creative people.

Other styles of escape likely came with other personalities. The home-made hot air balloon, ultralight aircraft, and scuba tank all show a certain engineering skill and expertise in finding objects. Recognizing that checkpoint guards would pay particular attention to low-riding cars, using a device to prevent the escape car from sagging under the weight of the hidden people, and then putting low-riding cars (with inanimate cargo only) before and after an escape car all show a strong ability to represent someone else’s mind and outsmart them in a scenario of “social chess”. And one case of a man finding a look-alike for his wife then pretending to date her so he could steal her papers – resulting in the poor woman serving jail time – shows a certain amount of ruthlessness as well.

All the escapees and escape helpers share some attributes – a desire for freedom, a certain ingenuity, perseverance, a willingness to take risks – but each story has its own flavor as well. It is a testament to the human mind, the creativity we can put to getting ourselves out of trouble. It is also something I will deliberately keep in mind for the next few days, as we delve into the creativity we can also put into discrimination and death.

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