Claudia and me on our 20th wedding anniversary, 2015

It occurred to me recently that my children don’t really know the whole story of how I met their Swiss mother. So, inspired by the TV show they like so much and by our rapidly-approaching 20th anniversary, I thought I would write a short series detailing the rather bizarre and heartwarming series of occurrences surrounding this event.
First off, children, I want to assure you it will not take ten years to tell you this story. Nor will it end with her untimely demise.
I graduated from the University of Arizona (for the second time) in December of 1992 with a brand new temporary teaching certificate and landed a job almost immediately teaching high school English. That it was in Eloy, Arizona, didn’t concern me overmuch, even if a number of my friends gave me startled looks when I told them where I’d be living. It was a real job making real money and I was gung ho to put my new skills to the test (so to speak).
Fast forward six months. I received my summer pay in a lump sum. I don’t remember how much it was–not a lot I imagine–but it seemed like a lot to someone who up to that point had mostly made minimum wage while working his way through college. For some reason Eloy seemed a lot less glamorous to me by then–out of sheer loneliness I’d gone so far as to put up a sign in the local post office advertising for someone to ride bikes or drink margaritas or do anything with, to no avail–and I looked at that check and had an idea.
I’d picked up the traveling bug while touring Europe for two months after my first graduation from college in ’89, I had no girlfriend, no real debt other than a small student loan payment and nothing keeping me in one place. It had also become painfully clear to me that American women weren’t really all that interested in me and I might die bitter and alone if I didn’t get out of Eloy while the getting was good. I might go to Australia and find myself a bride.
Additionally, there was some family precedent. One of the Knight men met his wife while recuperating in Australia during the Pacific War and his son met his wife there years later while traveling around. I also had a step sister living in New Zealand, married to a man she met while traveling around. Lots of promising omens.
So there I was at the end of July boarding a jet to Oz. I had it all worked out. I would scrape by on the barest minimum of cash while I looked for a job on a cattle station (what those zany Ozzies call cattle ranches) somewhere in the Outback. With a little luck I’d be able to stretch my meager funds to cover six months or so in Australia. My return flights would take me via New Zealand–where I hoped to eke out a few more months–and Fiji, which I knew nothing about but sounded exotic.
I was nervous as hell–scratch that, I was downright scared–going down there without knowing a soul, but I tried not to think about it too much. While waiting for my flight in LA I was approached by a sweet little old lady and she asked me if I would take one of her suitcases since she had too many and I naively agreed. It wasn’t until I was going through security that it occurred to me that taking a stranger’s luggage sounds like the opening scene in a movie where the hero either ends up on a hijacked plane or surrounded by armed federal agents while he tries to explain the ten kilos of cocaine.
But it turned out okay as she was actually just a sweet little old lady and not a ruthless drug smuggler-slash-terrorist. I had a layover in Auckland, New Zealand, which was her destination, and her family was kind enough to show me some sights and buy me a meal. I did experience a few moments of pure terror when we drove away from the airport and they took a left turn straight into oncoming traffic and certain death…only to realize that people drive on the wrong side of the street down there and we would actually live. They didn’t even seem too alarmed by my screams.
Her son even told me an amusing story about a mate of his who flew to LA to spend a nice holiday in the States. The poor man rented a car, left the airport and immediately got sucked into the hell of LA freeway traffic for a few white knuckle hours, before finally making his way back to the airport. Whereupon he turned in his rental car, bought a plane ticket and went straight home. At least I was already one up on that guy.
My flight left late and I landed in Cairns, Australia at about eleven o’clock at night. Cairns isn’t a very big place and the airport is (or at least was, God knows where it is now, twenty-some years later) way out beyond the fringes. I didn’t think too much of cabbing into town only to find all the backpackers (what they call hostels Down Under) closed for the night and perhaps being forced to sleep on a park bench so I found a quiet corner of the airport, stretched out on the floor and tried to get some sleep. The security guard who rousted me an hour later was actually pretty nice about it too. He just told me to get up and sit in a chair like a normal person whenever a new flight came in, as his bosses weren’t too keen on vagrants littering up the place.
Bright and early the next morning I shouldered my pack and headed into town. I was sleepy and a little ripe, but ready for the adventure to finally begin.
Part 2