An Interview with Michael Steltzer in „Skytimes“, the journal of One Sky One World
The Interview was done by Doug Vaughn in 1999
1983, Michael Steltzer and Chris Sandy started the first kite-store in Berlin, Germany. They called it Vom Winde Verweht – Gone With the Wind (Now called „Flying-Colors“). The company has been a pioneer in development of kites and a leading force in the renaissance of kite-flying as art and sport in Europe. Their achievements include:
Founders of the Berlin and German Kiteflyers associations.
International Kite Festival in Berlin.
Initiators and organizers of the German Stunt-kite Championships.
Sponsor of Up Against the Wall and Colored Dreams, Germany’s most successful stunt-kite teams.
Over the years, Vom Winde Verweht has been an innovator in kite design and manufacturing. An aggressive opponent of plagiarism and copycat design, the firm’s unique contributions include:
The Windturbine, a conical windsock that revolves around itself in the wind.
WinDart, registered trade name for a family of stunt-kites.
These kites are renowned for design, craftsmanship, and performance. They incorporate VWV’s patented Bias Profile Technology for more lift and a unique Gauze Technology to keep them quiet and for precise handling. This development received its first commercial application in VWV’s WinDart For Sail-Q model.
An architect by profession, Steltzer is as well-traveled as the kites he designs and produces. One Sky One World talked to Michael Steltzer in August 1999. Doug Vaughan conducted this interview for OSOW.
OSOW: Kites are your work and your passion, but you came to them after a long journey. Tell us about yourself. Let’s start at the beginning.
MS: I was born in November 1947, in the same house where my mother and grandmother were born in Frankfurt, Germany. The house was built by my great-grandfather, Alfred Günther, a well -known architect there.
OSOW: That makes you a baby-boomer. I don’t think our generation yet understands the degree to which our world, if not our worldview, was shaped by World War II. The war had just ended. Germany had destroyed much, and had itself been much destroyed – a chaotic and confused world to be brought into.
MS: My mother, Ulli Goetz, was a music teacher. Her father, Oswald Goetz, had to leave Nazi Germany in 1936 because of his Jewish origin. So my grandfather Oswald emigrated to the US, where he became a curator at the Art Museum of Chicago and later at Parke Burnett Gallery in New York. My grandmother, Lili Goetz, stayed in Germany with the children. She joined up with her husband in New York ten years later, after the war, in 1946.
OSOW: Your father, meanwhile, was going the other direction.
MS: My father, Werner Steltzer, had been in the German army since he was 18 years old. He was captured in North Africa while serving as an officer in Rommel’s Afrika Korps. For the rest of the war, he was held prisoner in Canada and England. After the war, he worked as a journalist in Munich. He married my mother in 1947. I came along later that year; my brother, Christian, in 1949.
Two years later, my parents divorced. My mother emigrated to the US with my brother and me in 1953. So at age six, I became a green-card holder, a German immigrant in New York City. You could say, that Hitler and his initiation of the Second World War was the reason I came to the US.
OSOW: That must have been a difficult transition. Growing up in the States, the Cold War seemed a bit abstract, almost unreal, another television program. But back home, it was very tense: the workers’ protests in East Germany and Poland, the Hungarian revolt and its suppression by Russian tanks.
MS: In 1953, I was too young to realize the uprising of the construction workers in East Berlin. In 1956, I did not know too much about the oppressive nature of Russion politics. I was just a happy American kid.
OSOW: Divorce is difficult for everyone. I was already in college when my parents separated. It must have been hard you.
MS: It was difficult to grow up without a father. I always felt that something was missing in my life. However, I did see him at times in between. My mom had to play the role of both. That was tough on her, too. There were not very many women in those days who were living alone with two kids and working full time.
OSOW: How did you get by, financially?
MS: My mother became a photographer. In 1957, we moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where my brother and I went to junior and senior high school. My mom was quite successful. She managed to make enough money to support herself and us as well. She also had contacts with many of the intellectuals in Princeton, like the physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Freeman Dyson.
OSOW: Like Einstein himself, they had helped create the atomic bomb that ended World War II, but they had misgivings about nuclear policy in the Cold War.
MS: It was a stimulating environment. So we also had the advantage of being able to relate to problems greater than those of our daily existence.
OSOW: Did you ever experience any discrimination as an immigrant, an “alien?”
MS: I was a legal resident. And I spoke American without a German accent, so I had no real problem. Despite the war, German immigrants were widely accepted. Every now and then I had to deal with discriminatory remarks such as “Kraut” or “Nazi”. I also had to hear a lot of chauvinist and nationalist garbage like “America is the greatest country on earth.”
OSOW: Did you miss your father, your homeland?
MS: Sure. In 1964, when I was 17, I went back to Germany for a year to live with my father in Berlin. I went to school there and was able to relearn my German. It was a wonderful experience, but I realized that I was basically an American, not a German. My instinctive sympathy was with America. I was quite opposed to German criticism, that America supposedly did not have it’s own culture. Everybody in Germany was wearing jeans and drinking Coke!
OSOW: Tell us more about that: The Wall had gone up in the divided city. West Berlin was surrounded, yet it must have been exciting for a teenager returning for the first time. Did you feel at home?
MS: It may seem odd, but I was not very aware of the Berlin Wall when I was in Berlin. I was more interested in being a growing young man. Girls and vacation were at the top of my list. And I had no difficulties in that. West Berlin was an exciting place and I felt good there. Somehow I knew I would return. In the fall of 1964 I came back to the States and graduated from high school in 1966. Then I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. I also became a naturalized American citizen.
OSOW: Gringo by choice or by default?
MS: I remember the questions the judge asked me – just two: Who was the first American president and who was the President at the time.
OSOW: Washington, who couldn’t tell a lie, and LBJ, who couldn’t tell the truth. All you need to know.
MS: I guess they knew I had good grades in American history, because they didn’t bother asking me anything else.
OSOW: Welcome to the Sixties. Johnson himself called them “a time of agonizing reappraisal.” Little did he know. What did you study – rather, what did you do in college?
MS: I wanted to study applied mathematics and engineering physics. I was very interested in the development and construction of plasma rocket engines for the exploration of deep space.
OSOW: You and Werner von Braun, although he was brought here under different circumstances. (Operation Paper Clip was a CIA program to recruit German scientists, some of whom, like Von Braun’s chief assistant, Rudolph, were wanted for war crimes and use of slave labor during World War II.)
MS: My girlfriend’s father was head of the aerospace department at Princeton University. He had a profound influence on me. But my involvement in fraternity life and Big Ten football weekends did not help my grade point. After three semesters, I was suspended from the University.
OSOW: 1968: I was kicked out of school, too. The world seemed to implode: The antiwar movement drove LBJ from power; the assassination of King, then Kennedy. The student protests in France nearly brought down DeGaulle as NATO troops stood by to intervene. Russian troops crushed the Prague Spring. Mao called for a Cultural Revolution against Soviet-style bureaucracy and privilege, but when workers took him too seriously, he sent troops into Shanghai to suppress the commune. The police rioted against protesters at the Democratic convention in Chicago; then Nixon took over with a “secret plan” to end the war, but expanded it to Laos and Cambodia.
MS: The war, the shootings at Kent State, the rising political awareness of oppressed peoples everywhere, even in the US, the murder of Martin Luther King- that was the world I grew up in, and it strongly influenced my life. I was getting very political. I suppose I was a sort of a Yippie.
OSOW: For our younger readers, the Yippies began as the Youth International Party. They advocated theatrical protests like dropping dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, which set off quite a scramble. The founders were Abbie Hoffman, now deceased, and Jerry Rubin, now a stockbroker, ironically. Today, you’d have to throw shares in some Internet start-up to get their attention.
MS: My job was more mundane: I worked at the Schlitz brewery for a year and went to night school, so I was able to return to the University of Wisconsin to continue my studies.
OSOW: And stay out of the draft?
MS: It was a jolt of reality, but I had learned to watch out for my own future. I earned my keep by being a custodian for an apartment complex and I earned my food by working in the kitchen of a fraternity. I studied international trade and economic development. I wanted to assist the Third World.
OSOW: I had a similar problem: Went to school on a scholarship, got kicked out, went to night school and worked hard. The alternative was to go to war in Vietnam. Instead, I ended up at Kent State, and got shot at anyway.
MS: After Kent State, the University of Wisconsin campus was occupied by the National Guard because of protest strikes. Our “muscle head” neighbors had burned the Vietnamese National Liberation Front’s flag in effigy. We protested this kind of redneck politics. We refused to oblige to demanded apologies and our fraternity chapter was dissolved in response.
OSOW: Then came the lottery.
MS: In 1970 I received Draft Number 47 from the Selective Service. My days were numbered — literally; I was furious at having to take part in an unjust war. I was on the side of the NLF; I was for the liberation of Vietnam.
OSOW: So you were not a pacifist?
MS: I considered myself to be a left-wing revolutionary. I also became a supporter of the Black Panther Party. It seemed that “political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” I wanted to train myself to become an urban guerrilla fighter. I wanted to go to Algeria and support Eldridge Cleaver and all the rest.
OSOW: Cleaver had written a best-selling book, Soul on Ice, while in prison, where he joined the Panthers. After his release on parole, he was named the BPP Minister of Information. After a series of confrontations with police in Oakland, California, he fled to Algeria with is wife, Kathleen. After a few years in exile, he returned to the US and became a “born-again” Christian. It sounds fantastic now, but it was all deadly real back then.
MS: Especially the war. I wanted to get away from the US military machine. So I left the US in December 1970. I wanted to go back to the country where I was born, get myself organized, get involved. So I went to Berlin, where I had been 7 years earlier. I got my German passport back, because according to German law I was not legally “of age” in 1966 when I became an American citizen.
OSOW: So now you were a man with two countries –one imitated yet reviled, and the other feared and divided.
MS: But I did not go to Algeria. I realized that terrorism was a dead-end. I wanted to change the social situation of my environment for the better. I started to study architecture. I thought I could change things that way. I found out quickly that a political and economic system couldn’t be changed through architecture.
OSOW: Private capital decides what gets built, and by whom. What about your personal and family life?
MS: I was married in 1972 to Edda, who was also an architect. I became a father while I was a student. We had two kids: My daughter, Jennifer, was born in 1973 and my son, Paul-Jonas in 1976. It all went very fast. After a few years of marriage my wife and I unfortunately realized that we were not meant for each other. Meanwhile, I got involved in politics again, and became student representative in the academic senate of the Art School. I was very involved in anti-imperialist activities. But I was also opposed to the imperialist politics of the Soviet Union.
OSOW: Explain that.
MS: I was a follower of the Three Worlds theory of the Chinese. They argued that the Second World (developed nations like Germany, France, Japan, Australia, etc.) and Third World (less developed countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America) and the people of the world generally should unite to oppose the two Superpowers in their fight for world domination. That made sense to me: I was an opponent of a divided Germany, and I had a deep aversion to the Eastern European vassal states and their Russian bosses. The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia had shown the true, oppressive character of the eastern system. Brezhnev was the new Hitler.
OSOW: That’s stretching it: There was only one Hitler, but there are many forms of fascism.
MS: Look at it now, and Stalin probably killed more people than Hitler did!
OSOW: I don’t think you can equate the famine in the Ukraine in the 1920s with the Holocaust. The first was a consequence of experimental policies under desperate conditions, perhaps preventable, perhaps not; but the latter was deliberate mass murder. Besides, the Soviets lost upwards of 28 million people, the Germans maybe half that, but it was the Nazis who launched aggressive war.
MS: But by the 1970s the Russians were more aggressive than the US. They were the latecomers at the imperialist banquet and were the ones who wanted to re-divide the world, upset existing situations. They were expansive, even if they couldn’t afford it. And they needed the Cold War to keep themselves mobilized. Berlin’s unity could only be possible if the Soviet Union left Germany. Opposition to both the US and Soviet forms of imperialism was the only way to avoid nuclear war.
OSOW: Fair enough: It’s true that the anti-nuclear and environmental movements, not just the arms race that finally bankrupted the Soviets, helped to unify Europe. What were you doing then?
MS: I was a co-founder of the Berlin Chapter of the German-Chinese Friendship Association. I was fascinated by China and the way it was developing. I was very active in organizing discussions, exhibits and cultural events about China. In 1978, I was invited to China with a group of 24 friends from Berlin. We were given the red carpet because we were coming as official friends, recognized by the government.
OSOW: Mao had died in 1976, the Cultural Revolution was denounced by his successors, and China seems to have rushed headlong back into capitalism. When the only law is the law of supply and demand, the Market minus Democracy equals Fascism.
MS: The idea of popular participation was attractive. It took a while to see that the Chinese were also living in an undemocratic society. Besides, you cannot transport foreign ideas and methods to your own country. We were German and not Chinese.
OSOW: And meanwhile, you had to make a living.
MS: In 1979, I got my degree as an architect. I did supervision on construction sites as an employee for various firms. I was making good money. But I was frustrated. I had no real contact with people and was basically just an officer on the construction site.
OSOW: What brought you to kite-flying? Was it something you did as a kid?
MS: I was always a kite-flyer. I used to drag them behind my bicycle on the streets of Princeton, hoping they would take off. Later, I always had a kite in the trunk of my car. It was a relaxing and romantic pastime for me. After an all-nighter with one of my first girlfriends, we went kite-flying at six in the morning. You just don’t forget that!
OSOW: I had no idea they were also aphrodisiacs!
MS: And a way to make a living. So in 1983, I got the whim to open Berlin’s first kite store. It has been 16 years of kite business. We helped quite a number of kite shops open around Europe. Just ask Thomas Erfurth from Drachendompteur in Frankfurt or Helmut Georgi of Fly High in Vienna.
OSOW: You’ve changed the face of kite-flying in Europe. How has it changed you?
MS: Kites have given me the possibility and privilege to see many parts of the world. I have been able to go to China again, in 1985 and 1987, and visit the birthplace of kiting. Festivals in Europe and America, in Bali, and Turkey have given me the chance to meet many wonderful people and to make friends.
OSOW: You flew kites over the Berlin Wall?
MS: On the 18th of March 1990, I flew my Ohashi Arch Kite-Train over the Berlin Wall together with the Berlin Kite-flyers Association. The 18th of March is an important day in German history: In 1848, many Berliners were shot by troops of the Prussian king as they were demonstrating for basic human rights such as freedom of speech, press and assembly. The king had to give in to their demands. This time, 142 years later, it was election day in East Germany, the first free elections since Hitler had seized power — two generations! So we asked the East German border guards if we could fly one end of the Kite-Train from the Potsdamer Platz, a huge square on their side of the Wall. These guards were the same ones who were supposed to shoot people who tried to cross the Wall. Yet they agreed! But first they demanded that they be allowed to hold the arch-kites. They told us that for the first time they had a job that made sense — kite-flying. It was a true connection of East and West Berlin. It was one sky, one world, one Berlin.
OSOW: Why kites?
MS: Kites connect people. Kite-lines connect oneself to the Cosmos. A friend of mine, Dan Leigh calls kite-lines “cosmic umbilical cords”. And kites are art, pure creativity.
OSOW: Technology meets nature, and no one gets hurt.
MS: Kites are a beautiful way to appreciate various laws of Nature. They combine physics and engineering. Kites are kids. Kites are dreams. Kites are power and energy. The kite business is trade and economics.
OSOW: And yet they’re amazingly diverse.
MS: Each culture has it’s own kite culture. There are certain kites which you associate with certain countries, kite rituals which belong to certain peoples and kite designs and shapes which belong to certain individuals. If you are in Turkey, you will see lots of octagon shaped kites; in India, you will see lots of little colorful fighter kites. As the world becomes more globalized, these shapes and forms intermingle..
OSOW: Yet they also bridge the divide between cultures.
MS: Kites are communication catalysts. Where they fly above, things happen down below. The kites are still flying and things change. Kites have helped to connect the various facets of my life and given me an identity, one I love to live with.
OSOW: Politically, as well?
MS: Kites can be very political. They have been for centuries. And then here comes this woman, Jane Parker Ambrose, with the idea of flying kites for peace all over the world on one single day. Well, I had to support that idea. I have been a fan of One Sky One World ever since. I have tried to support this grassroots activity everywhere I can. What a great way to celebrate the unity of our world and our environment. What a source of positive energy.
Unfortunately, I have found that there is some opposition to this project coming from the US within certain parts of the kite community itself. Evidently, some people need to promote themselves in such a way that they have refused to openly support this growing worldwide tradition. Instead, they find it necessary to cook their own little soup. That is a hindrance. It’s not conducive to the idea of unity and oneness.
OSOW: You just witnessed a total eclipse of the sun in Berlin. I saw it a few minutes later in the Austrian Alps. A little later it passed over the Balkans. Makes you feel a little vulnerable, doesn’t it, to be so dependent on the planet and each other, and so helpless before Nature?
MS: Nature is always stronger. One knows that from kite-flying. Never underestimate the power of the wind. To be helpless before Nature is excusable. You can’t stop an earthquake or hurricane! To be helpless before ourselves is not excusable. You can stop a war! One Sky One World makes this connection in a very positive way. It shows the Oneness of our world and moves us to be conscious about it and also about each other.
One Sky One World is not just something which takes place nationally or internationally. It is bigger than that. Today, national borders have less and less meaning. The pioneer of the air Otto Lillienthal predicted that airplanes would change the political landscape because of their disregard for national boundaries. They have been transcended by airplanes and telecommunications for nearly 100 years.
OSOW: The same was said for the space program, which began in military competition between the superpowers, both using German scientists, and ended with the Russians abandoning Mir. But are we any closer to a peaceful world?
MS: Kites have been obliterating frontiers much longer than airplanes or satellites. I think it is like examining your own bellybutton, if you remain stuck in the realm of “national” ideas. Besides, OSOW kites have also been in Space: The Columbia Shuttle took the OSOW Kite around the world in 1996. And the International Association of Astronauts with both Russian and American members has supported the idea of One Sky One World. We should promote the idea that kites connect people all over the world., not just Americans. Jane has known that all along. I think most people do. Those who don’t yet, will someday.
And so I am happy, that the Internet and OSOW are connecting up with one another. There is a lot of potential in this step and I hope that this will be able to “globalize” our project and our thinking in the direction we have started.
OSOW: Michael, what can OSOW do in the future?
MS: Getting people to connect is still a wonderful and very productive idea. The more we do so, the more we will be able to develop peaceful conditions in our world.
OSOW has done it’s small share to help that development. We should continue to have visions and dreams in the direction. If you don’t have dreams, then nothing can come true. I hope that more kite enthusiasts can develop new ideas and activities along these lines.
OSOW: What are your own plans?
MS: I have a little dream to connect Europe and Asia. Perhaps we can manage to symbolically connect Europe with Asia by flying an arch-kite system over the Bosporus — the straight that divides Greece and Turkey, Europe and Asia — in the 2000 on One Sky One World day.