STUTTGART, Germany - "Guten Morgen," whispered the schoolgirl standing behind me. When I didn't turn, she whispered her good-morning again.

So I turned from waiting for a streetcar to find three or four from her school group. Their eyes widened when I said simply, "Howdy."

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Their eyes widened again when I explained in German that I had traveled all the way from America, to the state church archives across the way, to find my father's grandfather.

I wanted to tell them more, but my streetcar had arrived. And so the conversation was as fruitless as my search would be.

Eight months earlier, a genealogist researching another branch of the family startled me, e-mailing to say that he had traced my family tree back 200 years, for fun, for free.

It was a tree that had stood in the desert of my complete ignorance of my family's origins.

And so, to give my 41-year-old nephew and my niece's 17-year-old son a sense of their roots, I returned with them to Germany for my first extended stay since I drove military trucks during the Berlin Crisis of 1961-62.

I didn't have high hopes.

Johann Georg Nädele had told U.S. census- takers in 1860 that he was 40 and had come from Wuerttemberg, which in the early 1800s was a kingdom in southwest Germany. But the census-taker failed to report which village Johann had left, leaving me to scour the whole modern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

With limited time, I needed to focus on two towns where two Johann Georgs had been christened in the early 1800s, based on what genealogy sites had told my e-mailer.

Stuttgart welcomed us home.

The commuter train from the airport - Stuttgart has six trolley lines and 12 light-rail lines - delivered us to the main railroad station in less than an hour for the equivalent of $3.96.

We checked into the Hotel Am Schlossgarten, rated a luxury hotel by Michelin. Each of our rooms cost $346 a night, pricey but well located. Across from the train station and car-rental agencies, the hotel borders a huge park - the castle garden for which it's named.

We took early dinner at the outdoor cafe, the least expensive of the hotel's three restaurants, averaging $40 each, and were serenaded by soft jazz floating from a garden tent.

In the early evening, we strolled through the garden, past the concert hall of the Stuttgart Ballet, onto the square bordered by rebuilt historic halls - memories from Wuerttemberg's golden years.

But history was not on our menu. Because of my elder nephew's tight vacation schedule, we had only four full days. And one afternoon was already booked - a tour of the Mercedes-Benz Museum, which was a gift to my nephew, a NASCAR fan, and a bargain at $7 a head.

The exterior surprised us. It looked like an upside-down birthday cake that seemed inspired by the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.

For three hours, we strolled down eight stories of ramps showcasing more than 100 years of cars and trucks, buses and racers, beginning with the first self-propelled carriages produced by Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz.

At one of many video screens, I was stunned by the apologetic description of forced labor with which the company had supported the Nazi war effort.

That was our only Stuttgart day, because I wanted to give my nephews an appreciation of southern Germany, so easily within reach of the city.

To sample the rail system, we headed northwest through Mainz to Bingen. The two-hour, $118.80 round trip cost about as much as the Amtrak round-trip from Philadelphia to Manhattan.

After a short walk from the railroad station to the Rhine River, we took a cruise to St. Goar and back, past a dozen castle ruins. The six-hour cruise was a bargain at $19.80 per person.

Another day, we got a taste of the autobahns by driving a rented Mercedes SUV ($377 for three days) northeast to the Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which travel writers have touted as a relic of medieval days. Although the autobahns have a reputation as racetracks, driving on them was no more unsettling than being passed at 80 m.p.h. on the N.J. Turnpike.

The drive should have taken an hour, but like a child I was naming the country of origin of each truck we passed - Poland, Holland, Slovenia - until we seemed to be halfway to the Czech Republic and realized we'd missed our exit.

Certainly in the mood for a hearty late-morning lunch after that brain cramp, we walked under an arch of the town wall and came across a backyard beer garden. For my portion of beef Stroganoff and dumplings - a "hangman's meal" because the garden is near a medieval dungeon - and two huge beakers of a Nürnberg beer, I paid $26.60.

Rothenburg is such a tourist town that one shop owner spoke German, English and Japanese. When music drew us to the main square, we found a teenage marching band from Colorado.

The city has its moments. My moment was not falling off the second-story walkway of the town wall, from which medieval archers shot through slits.

Back to my search for Johann Georg of the 1820s.

About a month before our trip, I e-mailed a Protestant church archives and asked in German to look at records for two villages south of Stuttgart for which the genealogist had found Johann Georg Nädeles.

The archive office e-mailed me in German that a seat would be reserved at a microfilm terminal on my requested date.

On the first of my two morning visits, I realized the importance of having a reservation. A brochure warned that because of limited staff, the archive could not make detailed searches for those who did not visit.

Just reading those files in old German script was worth the plane fare. It brought Johann to life, and I was pleased that each half-day visit cost only $6.60, plus 80 cents for each copy of a microfilm page.

The problem I faced was that church records were filed only by towns. There was no statewide file into which I could insert Johann Georg's name to find his birth or baptism records.

Even in the two villages whose records I read, I found several Johann Georgs born or christened in the early 1800s. But none were born in 1820, corresponding to my Johann's age in the 1860 U.S. Census.

That was my fault. I had not traced Johann Georg through records in U.S. towns where census-takers found him. Maybe he had told folks other than census-takers the town where he was born or from where he emigrated.

But my father's father - Johann's son - died the year before I was born. And in the manner of Americans' leaving roots buried, my father knew nothing.

So Johann is still an apparition, one that I'll chase through New England town records.

My nephews and I did have one small success.

On the Internet, I found a listing for Hans Nädele at an electronics shop in the town of Mössingen. I got no reply to a letter in German that asked whether any of his relatives had a family tree.

On the day before our flight out of Stuttgart, we drove south to the university town of Tübingen, where we had a lovely lunch at a brewery while watching folks riding gondolas down the Neckar River. Then farther south, we drove into one of the two towns whose church records I had reviewed, the modern-looking Mössingen.

At a bakery shop, the counter woman answered my question about Hans by repeating "Schon weg," which means "already gone."

But when we took her suggestion and turned a corner, there was the shop and, on a side wall, my family name. Instead of Hans' shop, though, it was an insurance agency of another name.

As we began to shoot photos, a man, a woman and a girl walked down the outside staircase from a second-floor apartment and drove away. Within a minute, they were back. The man spoke, but the only word that I recognized was "letter." Yes, I said, I'm the one who had sent the letter.

Hans had died four years earlier, the man said. Then he introduced his wife, Hans' daughter, Dagmar, who said virtually nothing, perhaps sensing overnight guests.

The husband was much friendlier, offering to photograph the three Americans together, under the family name. That photo now sits on one of my living-room bookcases.

Soon, I'll return to Stuttgart.

When I do, I'll bring American records that I hope Johann left behind. I'll search again through birth and christening records in that wonderfully archaic script - touching the language with which good ol' Johann lived.

Touring Stuttgart

Air France, Delta, Lufthansa and US Airways fly to Stuttgart from Philadelphia International Airport with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip airfare was about $725.

On the Web

www.stgt.com provides facts about the city, its events and accommodations, and has links to information about the Mercedes-Benz and Porsche museums.

www.museum-mercedes-benz.com offers a tour through the museum's eight levels.

www.archiv.elk-wue.de for the Protestant church archive in Stuttgart. Googling "landeskirchliches archiv" gives a list of such archives in several German cities.

www.bingen-ruedesheimer.com for Rhine cruises.

www.rothenburg-online.de for the city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

- Walter F. NaedeleEndText

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 610-701-7614 or at wnaedele@phillynews.com.