by Rowena Eureka
Nicky Campbell clutched the blue onionskin paper of Sophie’s letter and hid from the four German men staring at her family’s car. Their brand new 1976 silver Buick station wagon sat in the Hohenzollern parking lot, shadowed by the castle, with its fairy tale spires above. She needed to think of a response to Sophie’s letter, and had no time for people staring at their car like it was Cinderella’s carriage dropped from the sky.
Nicky had wanted to find a mystery at the cool medieval castle, but her sisters had followed her around like she was an East German spy, so she volunteered to come back to the car with her mom and tired little brother. Now her dad and sisters were walking towards the four staring men, and Nicky still hadn’t thought up a good mystery.
When they lived in Washington, D.C., she and Sophie loved to write stories together. Now that Nicky’s family had moved to Stuttgart, Germany, for her dad’s job as a civilian army worker, she tried to match Sophie’s stories. She had never had a friend as fun as Sophie and wanted to make sure her best friend felt the same way—a tricky task to pull off in just a few sheets of flimsy paper. This month Sophie had written a hilarious mystery about a missing hamster at her school.
Maybe the mystery of their car’s appeal was the story Nicky should write back. No, she needed a better one. In the meantime her dad approached the men, his smile spreading from behind his beard up to his glasses.
In D.C., the Campbell’s station wagon was an ordinary car, but in the few months since they’d lived in Germany, people often huddled around it in parking lots or waved as her family rode down cobblestone streets in tiny towns. It wasn’t really a mystery, though, because compared to their station wagon cars here were the size of toys. The Campbells’ car also had a green American license plate and a white circle sticker on the back of the car that said, “USA”. Her dad said people liked Americans because the U.S. had helped end World War Two. That war seemed like ancient times to Nicky—thirty years ago, almost before her parents were born.
“Grüss Gott!” Her dad said, using one of the few German phrases he’d knew.
The men all said “Grüss Gott” back, which only encouraged him.
“Do you want to see the engine?” he asked.
Her dad’s enthusiasm for talking to strangers was another mystery, but that didn’t seem right either since Sophie knew Mr. Campbell well.
“I see the Gray Ghost has a fan club at castles, too,” her older sister Ellen said, as she scrambled into the middle seat with Nicky’s younger sister, Heather.
Their mom had started calling their car the “Gray Ghost,” a name that confused Nicky. Their car was silver and seemed nothing like a ghost. Her mom probably hoped that calling it a ghost would make their car become invisible.
Nicky’s mom and little brother were shy about people, just like Nicky. So Danny wound his fingers in a strand of her mom’s dark hair and cuddled close to her in the front seat.
Her dad opened the driver’s seat door, poked his head in the car, and pulled the hood release.
“They want to see the engine,” he said, “I’ll just be a few minutes.”
He closed the door and practically danced to the front of the car to pull up the hood.
The men leaned in and stared at the very ordinary engine, asking many questions in English, which her dad answered as if he was an engine expert, even though his knowledge of cars amounted to knowing how to pump his own gas.
Her mom groaned and muttered, “Yes, it’s big. We know.”
“I could look up how to say, ‘We know our car is big’ in German and French,” Ellen said. “Then we could put the sign in the window of our car.”
Ellen had been on a language kick ever since Sophie’s family had moved to D.C. from France and become friends with the Campbells.
Nicky groaned. “Mom, please don’t let her do that!” Ellen’s “French” sounded nothing like Sophie’s.
“That might bring us more attention. But thank you, hon.”
The hood of our car banged shut, and the men walked away smiling and waving.
Mr. Campbell slid into the driver’s seat. “Everyone ready to go?”
The smell of strawberry wafted across the back seat.
“Yep,” Heather blew a bubble, popped it, and scooped the gum back into her mouth again.
“Can I have a piece?” Nicky asked.
Heather shook her head. “This is my last one. Bought it from a kid at school. It’s special French bubble gum from the French commissary in Baden-Baden. She sells it for a quarter each!” At eight years old Heather was the Monopoly champion of the family and very into money.
Germany had excellent chocolate bars, but they didn’t have bubble gum. The commissary on base (the military way of saying grocery store) had a limited selection of gum. So everyone at her American school was always on the lookout for good bubble gum.
“There’s a French commissary in Baden-Baden?” Ellen asked. Nicky could see the “French” stars lighting up in Ellen’s eyes.
Mr. Campbell pulled out of the parking spot and waved goodbye to the Gray Ghost fan club.
“That’s right. After the war Germany was divided up into sectors,” he said. He loved talking about history. “The French oversee the west part near France.”
“Oooh!” Ellen said, bouncy up and down, “Could we go to there?”
“Sure!” Mr. Campbell said. “It’s less than a two-hour drive. Let’s go tomorrow.”
Nicky would have protested, but perhaps she’d find a good story for Sophie at the French commissary.
At the French base in Baden Baden, there was a guardhouse at the gate to check military IDs and the same beige buildings in a row, just like the American base where Nicky went to school. Here, though, the signs were in French and German instead of English and German, and the smell of freshly baking bread wafted through the French commissary.
“Should we buy baguettes for a picnic lunch?” Mr. Campbell asked.
“Good idea.” Mrs. Campbell sat Danny in a shopping cart.
“We should get cheese to go with our baguettes,” Ellen said.
“How do we pay?” Nicky asked. “We don’t have French money.”
“They’re called French Francs.” Ellen drew herself up tall, like a teacher.
Nicky ignored her.
“We can also pay with German Marks here,” Mr. Campbell said.
“Where’s the bubble gum?” Heather looked around. “We came here to get bubble gum to sell it at school. Remember?”
Mr. Campbell laughed. “Why don’t you girls look around on your own and meet back at the front in a few minutes with what you want to buy?”
“But only one or two bags of bubble gum, please,” Mrs. Campbell said.
Heather rushed towards the candy aisle, while Ellen and Nicky went to the cheese stand, where you could choose from more cheeses than Nicky had ever seen. There were tangy cheeses with blue bits, hard yellow cheeses, and round cheeses that looked like dusty white cakes on the outside but were super creamy on the inside.
Ellen used her “French” to ask the cheese lady for several different types of cheese, while pointing to them, too, so the lady understood.
Having no luck finding a story with Ellen, Nicky searched for Heather and found her in the candy aisle holding what looked like twelve bags of gum in her arms.
“They have regular, strawberry and mint!” Heather said. “How many bags of each do you think I should get?”
“Mom said we could only get one or two bags,” Nicky said.
“She didn’t know there would be three flavors,” Heather hugged the bags tightly to her chest. “People pay more for mint.
“So, get mint and strawberry,” Nicky said. “I wouldn’t mind a piece or two of those flavors.” Sophie absolutely loved bubble gum. Perhaps Nicky’s letter could be a review of the different flavors.
“You have to pay me 25 cents for the strawberry and 50 cents for the mint.”
“No way. I can just get my own,” Nicky looked at the shelf to grab another mint bag but didn’t see any.
“There’s only one bag of mint.” Heather clutched the bags tight. “And it’s mine.”
“Mom will make you share.”
“Not if I pay for it with my allowance money,” Heather said. “We can get a bag of the regular and a bag of strawberry to share.”
Nicky probably could have convinced her mom to let her use her allowance to buy her own bag of gum, but she was saving her money for a beautiful leather pencil case at the stationery store in their German town, so she had to save every pfennig. Besides, sending Sophie a gum review wasn’t as good as a mystery.
“I’ll help convince Mom to let you buy the bag of mint if you give me two pieces of mint for free,” Nicky said.
“One piece and it’s a deal.”
Thankfully, when they got back to the Gray Ghost there was no fan club greeting them, but Nicky still didn’t have a mystery to write to Sophie.
“That was so much fun asking for the cheese in French,” Ellen said. “When do you think we’ll be able to take a trip to the actual country of France?”
“You know,” their dad said, his voice getting that familiar far-off tone like he was living in his own fairytale. “France is only about 25 minutes away. We could have our picnic at a park in France.”
Ellen bounced up and down. “Really? Can we?”
“Sure!” their dad said. Then he looked at Nicky’s mom and Danny and asked, “Is that alright with you, Grace?”
“A picnic along the river would be nice, but then we need to get back for Danny’s nap.”
Her mom, in charge their passports, had figured they might need them for the French commissary, which also worked perfectly for the German-French border. It was like her mom had travelled with her dad before. No mystery there.
They picnicked on a large flat rock on the side of the Rheine River near the city of Strasbourg. Her dad spread a scratchy wool army blanket over the rock, and her mom got out the plastic cups that they kept in the car for outings. She tore up the brown paper grocery bag to make plates, broke off pieces of baguette with her hands, and used a plastic spoon they found in the car to spread the creamy cheese.
The sun shone on the river while Nicky drank her orange soda and watched sailboats glide along, wondering if the mystery she searched for was in France.
After the picnic, Heather opened her bags of bubble gum and counted each piece on the middle seat of the car. She divided the regular and strawberry bags into three piles and gave Nicky and Ellen ten pieces each. Then she opened the mint bag and counted her treasure.
“Here Nicky and Ellen, you can each have one piece of mint bubble gum,” Heather announced like she was giving them a precious jewel.
“Why can’t we have two?” Nicky asked.
“I already have only 27 pieces left to sell. At 50 cents a piece that will be $13.50, minus the $3.50 I had to pay Mom, which equals just $10 in profit.” Heather said, stashing her precious bag of gum under her seat in the Gray Ghost. “If I give you another piece I’ll earn even less. Sorry!” She smiled her cute expression that worked on grow-ups.
“Stingy!” Nicky muttered.
She took a piece of strawberry bubble gum, unwrapped it, and breathed that sugary-strawberry scent, before plopping it in her mouth. Delicious!
They set off to “see the sites of Strasbourg”.
There was a huge gothic cathedral in the middle of the city. Otherwise, Strasbourg looked like cities in Germany, besides all the signs being in French. There were the same tiny old buildings pressed together between regular modern office buildings, and the same winding cobblestone streets that turned onto large modern roadways. No mystery in sight.
“Let’s stop at the cathedral to use the bathroom,” Mrs. Campbell said. “Who else needs to go?”
Heather did. Their dad let Heather and Mrs. Campbell out while Nicky reread Sophie’s letter for inspiration, and Ellen and Danny played peek-a-boo in the middle seat. There was no parking to be found, so Mr. Campbell drove around the block, the Gray Ghost maneuvering around tiny dark French cars like a whale in an ocean of minnows until they circled back to the cathedral.
Ellen opened the middle door for her mom and Heather and said, “Next stop, Germany!”
Nicky’s mom got in the front seat while Heather scrambled in the middle seat to count her treasure.
“There are only 25 pieces,” she said. “ Nicky, did you steal my gum?”
“I didn’t take your stupid gum,” Nicky said. “Why didn’t you blame Ellen?”
“I was playing with Danny,” Ellen said.
“I counted them right before we got out of the car!” Heather shouted. “I know you took it, Nicky!”
“ENOUGH!” Mr. Campbell roared. “There’s lots of traffic here, and I need to get us back to the highway. Let’s everyone be quiet for the next twenty minutes and then we can look for Heather’s gum.”
They heard the tick, tick, tick of the turn signal as Mr. Campbell pulled onto the highway.
“Hmmm…” he said. “I didn’t realize we were so low on gas. The gauge says empty.”
Nicky turned around and looked over her seat. “We’re going to run out of gas and be stranded in France?”
“Can’t we buy some at a gas station?” Heather asked.
“We don’t have any French francs,” said Ellen.
“Oh Bill!” Mrs. Campbell said. “Why didn’t you look before you drove all over Strasbourg?”
Mr. Campbell patted her arm. “Don’t worry, Grace. I’m sure we’ll make it to the border.”
At least Nicky would have mystery to write about if they were stranded in France. Even though it was obvious that Ellen took the gum, Nicky supposed she could still turn Heather’s accusation into a story. They drove the next twenty minutes crossing their fingers and holding their breath while the American Armed Forces Network radio crooned out songs until they made it to the first German gas station.
“Hooray!” They cheered when they pulled up to the pump.
Danny crawled into Nicky’s lap and put his arms around her. That’s when she noticed he had minty breath.
2 thoughts on “The Gray Ghost Visits France”
Nice Robin. I just love that your voice is so perfect for these stories.
I enjoyed it because I remember children running after our car when we drove into Germany at a campsite in the early 80s.
I wonder if this was similar to personal experience for you?
Thank you for the kind words, Gail! How interesting that you have a Germany-car memory, too! I’ll have to ask you more about that in person.