My dad, God rest his soul, was a brilliant engineer. Someone once described him to me as ‘the guy you call when everyone else has called the job impossible’. He solved immensely complicated instrumentation problems on projects all around the world. He could mentally trace every switch in every station of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline…but couldn’t tell you his kid’s birthdays or even where they lived most of the time. He could restore power to a war-ravaged Kuwait City, but he couldn’t boil water. His brain just didn’t work like that.

But he had a secret weapon! Following him from the hinterlands of northern communist China to jungle villages in South America and camel caravans in the Middle East, it was my mother who tethered him to the world beyond his blueprints. She was the one-woman support team who nourished him body and soul, reminded us kids that he loved us and reminded him when it was time for them to return home for one of those rare holiday visits. She signed his name to birthday cards and gift tags. In all my life I can only remember getting one card with an actual ‘dad’ signature and one gift the he picked out all by himself: a store-bought birthday cake with yellow roses for my ninth birthday.

Mom was my father’s connection to life beyond circuits and schematics, and when she died he was lost, to himself and to us. At her memorial service, amidst suits and ties and black mourning dresses, Dad wore blue jeans and a Land’s End jacket and was the first to leave, slipping out the back to catch a flight. Without turning around to see if anyone noticed his departure, he simply raised a hand in silent farewell, off to some far-flung corner of the world where a new brain puzzle could offer him an escape to a place the pain could not easily follow.

Over the next couple of years his accountants were able to give us a general idea of where he was. Efforts to reach out by phone and mail went unanswered. My husband tried to call him when surgical complications took me dangerously close to an untimely end, only to be told that dad was ‘out in the field’ somewhere in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. And then, about two and a half years after mom died, he shows up on my front door as if he’d only left yesterday, grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

“I’m getting married,” he announced, happily.

What he should’ve said was: ‘I’m about to be bitten by a poisonous viper and die a slow, painful death” because that’s just about what happened. My brilliant father had been snared by a centuries old practice with a new name: the Internet Bride.

In the 1800’s, westward American expansion was led primarily by men. Having staked their homestead or mining claim, they next staked out matrimonial prospects – a somewhat more daunting task. Available females were few and far between as the majority were still firmly rooted back East. Asian male immigrants of the time faced an even bigger obstacle: cultural bias meant seeking a bride much farther a field — across the Pacific Ocean. The term “mail-order bride” came about because the mail service was just about the only way to get the job done.

The earliest bachelors wrote – or dictated – letters, describing the kind of woman they sought, which they sent back to family members, friends and churches in hopes of catching a willing prospect. If a connection was made, a courtship correspondence – including perhaps a picture – ensued, resulting ideally in a deal being struck.  For as little as the price of a ticket west, a miner or a farmer had gained himself a bride.

Asian agencies recruited willing females to compile what were essentially catalogues containing a photo and a brief description of each woman. Bundled onto clipper and cargo ships, the books were sent onward to the agency’s field agents in female-starved ports of call like San Francisco, there to be made available to marriage-minded males for perusal and purchase. These candidates became known as ‘picture book brides.’

The lovelorn immigrant’s price for love was quite a bit higher than that of his native neighbor. Crossing the Pacific carried a heftier conveyance fare than a train or stagecoach ticket. And as we’ll see in part two of this story, the many perils of an ocean journey could also have ‘until death do us part’ come before ‘I do’….

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