As was my habit, I visited the dry cleaning shop on Avenue de Grammont in the town of Tours, France, to exchange soiled shirts for clean ones. When I entered, the proprietress, a friendly demurring lady by the name of Madam La Rue, was talking with a customer. I waited near the door for the gentleman to finish his business. He was about to depart the shop when Mrs. La Rue asked him to please wait a moment. Turning to me, she said, "Bon Jour, Lieutenant Fleckenstein. I want you to meet Lieutenant Lang. Lieutenant Lang is a fighter pilot in our French Air Force." The lieutenant and I shook hands. In perfect English he asked if I was stationed nearby. I told him, "Yes, I'm with the American Army at Chinon." I asked if he was also stationed nearby. He said he was.

We chatted briefly and in due time Lieutenant Lang said he must go. He walked to the exit, but hesitating with a hand on the door handle, he turned toward me. He asked, "Are you by chance related to the Fleckensteins of the castle?" Surprised by the question, I had to admit, "Not that I know of." He said several years ago he had been stationed near the castle which is in Alsace. He opened the door, said he was pleased to have met me, and with that took his leave.

Walking home that day with my shirts in hand, I thought to myself that the French lieutenant's question was strange. I wondered: Fleckenstein Castle—is there really such a thing? When I arrived at the house where I had a room, I went first to my car. There, I had a detailed map of France. I unfolded the map looking for names in the Province of Alsace. Within a matter of seconds, I spotted the name "Fleckenstein." I wasn't sure what the word meant. Was it actually a castle as the French lieutenant claimed or was it something altogether different? Perhaps it's a town? I told myself, This is weird.

Several days after having met the French fighter pilot, I wrote to my favorite aunt, Mary, to ask her about the family name. She knew much about our ancestry, whereas my father had little interest in the subject. When Aunt Mary wrote back, she explained that she was not aware of a Fleckenstein Castle. However, she mentioned, her father, my grandfather, maintained our name was a noble name. She added that growing up, my grandfather didn't wish to use the family name of his stepfather, Wolfe. No, he preferred the name "Fleckenstein" of his biological father. My curiosity grew as the plot thickened. I resolved that come spring I was going to look more closely into this matter of the Fleckenstein Castle.

Because I had met Lieutenant Lang in mid-winter it would have been a poor time to drive across France to visit the site. On a day after the weather turned warmer, I packed a small bag and headed my car east. I was determined to solve this mystery. After a long drive across France, I arrived in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace. I tried driving various roads in the proximity of the castle, trying to find it. On one road in the valley, I spotted an imposing structure atop a mountain in the distance that I thought might be the Fleckenstein Castle. The sight was impressive and it made me more restless. I had to see it up close.

Because the roads in the area were not well marked, I was having trouble finding my way. The sun would be setting shortly, and I had little time remaining that day to continue my search. I intended to try several more roads before it became dark. By accident, I drove up a road that turned out to be a private drive. I swore under my breath. As I turned around to leave, I spotted a man standing in the yard of a large stone house having a smoke. He saw me but didn't seem provoked by my presence. I decided to park and inquire.

In French, I politely mentioned I am looking for the Fleckenstein Castle, and I asked if it was nearby. To my surprise, he told me in German that he did not speak French. He seemed disinterested in further discussion. Strange, I thought, since I knew with certainty I was still in France. I switched to German and asked the same question. He told me that, yes, the castle is about a kilometer away. He pointed to his left and added, "In that direction. Through the woods." I thought he had nothing more to say. I thanked him before turning away to leave when I heard him ask if I was American. He said I seemed to have an English language accent. I recognized a glimmer of a possibility. It occurred to me that some salesmanship on my part might serve my cause.

I knew that not many years in the past, the American Army fought fierce battles in the area as they pushed the German Army over the mountains to the east. I told the man I was a lieutenant in the American Army at Chinon. I also mentioned I am a Fleckenstein and I was hoping to see the castle. The effect was immediate. He dropped his cigarette, stepped on the butt as he extended his hand. He said his name was Henri Metz and, "We don't see many Americans up here."

The gentleman asked if I had eaten dinner. I said, no. I had been travelling and hoped to eat at an inn in a nearby town. He said I was welcome to join him, his wife and daughter for dinner. He said they would be eating shortly. I said I would be delighted.

Inside, he introduced me to his family. We had chicken with wine and mashed potatoes. While we were eating, I happened to notice a plaque on the dining room wall that displayed the skull of a wild boar. The skull had two long fearsome-looking tusks. Pointing to the skull, I asked Mr. Metz if wild boars lived nearby. He said that yes, a good number of them live in the adjacent forest. Nothing to fear though, he said.

When we finished eating, Mr. Metz told me that if I would return the following day, he would be glad to show me the castle. He said he had business in the afternoon, but we could see the castle in the morning if that would suit me. I said I'd be certain to return the following day.

As scheduled the previous evening, I returned to meet with Mr. Metz for the promised excursion. Together, we walked along a path he said led to the castle. As we rounded a turn in the trail, it slowly came into view. I was awestruck by the appearance of the massive structure that was from times gone by. I stopped momentarily to take in the scene before me. The once-powerful fortress had been carved into a natural stone outcropping. Although most of the masonry along with the wooden structures had been destroyed by enemies of the Fleckensteins, large parts of the castle remained intact. The giant seemed content to rest amongst the verdant hills of the forest, no longer interested in battles of the present day.

After we climbed to the top where the palace was once situated, I found the view to be spectacular. There was neither a single man-made structure nor a sign of human activity within view, only beautifully forested mountains. Mr. Metz spent over an hour showing me the castle's features before we returned along the trail to his house. During our outing, we didn't see as much as one other person. That region of the Vosges Mountains was a lonely and desolate part of France.

While travelling in the Alsace region many years later, I had an opportunity to once more visit the castle. In the interim since my first visit along with Mr. Metz, I found a macadam road had been built right up to the entrance. Apparently, the French government, which had assumed ownership of the castle, recognized its financial potential as a tourist attraction. Nearby a large parking lot had been constructed to accommodate the numerous cars and buses. Visitors were obliged to pay a fee to enter the site.

Although disappointed by these commercial activities, I decided nonetheless I was going to visit the old fortress once more. At the gate where admission tickets were purchased, I told the young lady behind the counter that because I am a Fleckenstein I should be allowed free entrance. She seemed duly impressed to encounter a genuine Fleckenstein and told me, "Of course, sir. Please come in."

Today, the famous Michelin Guide rates the Fleckenstein Castle as one of the most interesting castles in eastern France. Numerous online sites describe the castle's features as well as those of nearby hotels and restaurants.

As a result of investigations subsequent to my initial visit to the castle, I learned the Fleckenstein nobles once ruled a large swath of northern Alsace. The noble line prevailed over a period of five-hundred years starting in the thirteenth century. Over that time there would have been many males born into the noble Fleckenstein families. However, according to the rule of primogeniture, only the eldest male would have inherited the title of baron as well as the vast properties. The more junior males, of which there must have been many, would have been obliged to step out on their own to live amongst commoners. Possibly one of those more junior individuals was an ancestor of mine. Who knows? The possibility fires the imagination.