English Professor Explores the Untold History of “Rocket Town”

Karen Piper
Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

When Karen Piper was just seven years old, her parents packed up the family car and moved a thousand miles from Seattle, Washington, to China Lake, California. Piper’s father, an aerospace engineer for Boeing, was laid off by the company in the late 1960s and had been unemployed for six months when he received an offer from the Naval Ordnance Test Station at China Lake. Piper says the job was a godsend to her family, but the new living arrangements would present many challenges.

“The community was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1948 as ‘Rocket Town,’ and it depicts this perfectly dressed housewife pruning roses and the white picket fence,” Piper says. “They were trying to sell it as Levittown, and the sad thing is that’s what people expected when they got there. It was nothing like that—it was this howling dessert—nobody has lawns, there are no roses, but over time you learn to adapt.”

Piper recently received an advance to publish her memoir, A Girl’s Guide to Missiles, a story about growing up at the nation’s premier weapons development facility at China Lake. She says although there have been many books written about the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos, her book will be the first to look at a little-heard-of community where the nation’s non-nuclear weapons were built, such as the Sidewinder missile.

Piper says China Lake was full of contradictions. The community had more churches per capita than any other town in California but also was known as the community that had more PhDs than any other place in the country.

“So it’s full of scientists, and yet it’s extremely religious, and they are teaching me creationism—so how do those two go together?” she asks. “That’s part of why I wrote the memoir—trying to figure that out.”

Piper says part of the difficulty in writing her memoir is the secrecy that surrounded her parents’ work. Her father worked on the Sidewinder missile program, and her mother trained to become a computer scientist at the base and eventually worked on Tomahawk missile simulations.

“It’s those two things—the secrecy and religiosity and not knowing what these bombs are that are going off across the street—you know, ‘What the heck is going on?’ And of course Mom and Dad can’t tell you, or they are trying to explain it to you as a little kid, but you don’t want to explain war to a little kid, so it was difficult,” she says.

Piper says she started working at China Lake at the age of 16, at a time when there was a conflict between military contractors and the civilians living on base about who controlled the weapons. One day her father let slip that missile tests were being faked, and he was very upset by this fact. At the time, Piper says she didn’t understand what her father meant by the statement, but he later developed Alzheimer’s disease and began revealing more and more secrets about the corruption he witnessed on the base.

“I think the memoir started in part because I wanted to know what he meant when he said they were faking the missile tests, so I went back and interviewed people who worked there and found some information that I incorporated into my memoir,” she says. “But it’s more than an exposé, it’s also about what this community was like—this strange sort-of company town out there that’s unlike any other.”

Piper says The Girl’s Guide to Missiles is her first creative non-fiction book.  Her previous titles, Left in the Dust from Palgrave MacMillan and The Price of Thirst from the University of Minnesota Press, dealt with water infrastructure and environmental issues. She says she has worked on her latest book for about 10 years and calls the experience “a little frightening.”

“I wonder what people in my town will think of this, or my mom or my mom’s friends,” she says. “I’m trying to be careful not to reveal anything that would be considered secret, even though the story is all about exposing secrets.”

Piper says she expects A Girl’s Guide to Missiles to be published in spring 2017.

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