When Henry VIII's Bed Is Too Short

A tall persons' convention shares views from above on always drawing short straw.

Shepherding nearly 500 "vertically enhanced" men and women from 10 countries recently through the gates of Hampton Court Palace, near London, Phil Heinricy slips into tongue-in-cheek mode.

From his height of 6-feet, 8-inches, he ticked off a few of the advantages of being extremely tall.

"If I have to change a light bulb, I don't need a ladder," he says. "Little old ladies in supermarkets are glad to have me around for lifting cans of baked beans off the top shelf. And of course, I stand out in a crowd."

As the party of "tallies" ambled toward the palace, that last statement was debatable. About a quarter of the delegates to the annual European Tall Persons' Convention were scraping the English sky at more than seven feet. From his personal eminence of 7-feet, 6-inches, German office worker Yves Missal is able to look down on the top of Mr. Heinricy's head. "What's it like down there?" he inquires. "Have you ever tried miniature golf?"

In fact, being unusually tall is no laughing matter. Apart from sightseeing, the Europeans, who were joined by a 60-strong contingent from the United States, were in London to discuss steps they could take to ease the problems of tall men and women. They have decided to ask the European Parliament in Strasbourg to pass new laws taking account of the needs of people well above average height.

Heinricy explains: "The average height of human beings increases by half an inch every decade, but the world hasn't caught up with reality.... We are determined to make governments in the European Union take note of the fact that many standard sizes were set more than 100 years ago - and we want them to enact new laws accordingly," he says.

Most tall people are quick to insist that they don't regard unusual height as an affliction - and they certainly don't want to be patronized by the "vertically challenged." But a few minutes' conversation with the group reveals a world in which tall people all too often draw the short straw.

"At a standard 6-feet, 6-inches - a figure set in 1880 - doorways in Britain are far too low," Heinricy says. "So are most desks and tables. And let's not talk about seats in airplanes!"

At one point, the group is shown King Henry VIII's bed. At six feet, the six-times-married monarch was considered tall for his time. But Britain's Mary Noakes (6-feet, 2-inches) comments, "His bed is no longer than [those in] most British hotels today." It would have been wiser not to mention such things. As host president of the Tall Persons' Club of Great Britain, Heinricy spent several weeks looking for London hotels with beds more than six feet long. "The British bed-length standard was set in 1860," he explains. "The best I could find were beds 6-feet, 3-inches in length. You can imagine what that meant for most of us."

In Europe, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian men average six feet in height - and growing. But in the US, scientists say something odd is happening. "The height of the American male has stayed constant at 5-feet, 10-inches since the 1970s," says Stephen Gray, a nutritionist at Nottingham University. In Britain, the average male these days stands at 5-feet, 11-inches. "So we've left the Americans behind," Professor Gray says.

Mutual tallness can have its benefits. It can bring people together. Sven Gabriel and Ute Pfannschmidt from Germany are both 6-feet, 2-inches tall. "In normal society it was a problem to find a man I could relate to," says Ms. Pfannschmidt. "Then I met Sven. My height ceased to be a drawback."

But the experience of Phil Heinricy and his wife Carol has been different. At 5-feet, 3-inches, she is more than a foot shorter than her husband.

"I help Phil with the club," she says. "Since it started, I've had to get used to seeing the world through other people's legs."

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