A Girl’s Guide to Missiles

A professor returns to the California military base where she grew up to make sense of her family’s role developing weapons for the US government.

Karen Piper | A Girl’s Guide to Missiles | Viking | August 2018 | 38 minutes (7,502 words)

Don’t touch any ordnance,” the guide said. “If you see any lying around. It could explode.” Fiftyish and portly, he was wearing jeans and a T­shirt and might have passed for a truck driver if not for the B­2 bomber on his cap. Above the plane, the hat read “Northrop,” where I assumed he must have worked, maybe even on the B­2. The group of twenty or so tripod­toting tourists, there to photograph the largest collection of petroglyphs in the Western Hemisphere, looked around warily. A few people laughed, others fidgeted. Only my mom and I knew that we really could explode.

“Ordnance, what’s ordnance?” the woman next to me whispered with a plaintive smile as we began our walk into the canyons. One glance at her tripod made me worry. It was almost as tall as her, and she looked wobbly already.

“Missiles, bombs, that sort of thing,” I said. She stopped and stepped back, her smile dropping. What did she expect? I thought. We were at China Lake Naval Weapons Center, after all. Things were supposed to explode.

I had grown up here, but now only my mother remained behind to keep watch over my father’s body in the warm earth. My sister and I had left long ago, and only an old black­and­white photograph of my family in front of some petroglyphs had drawn me back. In the photo, we are all together and happy: my dad, Earl; my mom, Mary; my sister, Christine; and me. I could not remember if the photo had been taken here or during one of our family road trips, hopping from one desert to another. So here I was, trying to remember something about a childhood locked behind the base gates, my memories in files that would never be declassified. I had lost my security clearance, and after my mom retired, our last access was stripped away with the sticker on her car. My family had once roamed these desert ranges freely, but now we were in exile, tourists to our own pasts. The only way we could visit the base was on a petroglyph tour.

“Don’t pick up a missile, Mom,” I whispered, leaning over conspiratorially. She just shrugged. She was seventy­four and impish as ever, slightly plump but ever ready to go. With her wispy gray hair, bare face, and polyester pants, she was quintessential China Lake. Not a place for fussing over hair and makeup.

“I’m not the one I’m worried about,” she said, chuckling. I knew she was right. Though once prone to hide behind her skirts, I had become the kind of person whose feet would make a beeline to what I needed to know. Nothing could stop me. I would pick up ordnance just because I had to read the fine print. My mom followed me around as if I were a toddler, hoping to keep me alive.

Our giggling and whispering brought a swift glance from the man in the B­2 bomber cap. We both looked down, feigning invisibility, and he continued after a pause. In the wispy dead desert grass, I noticed a stinkbug startled by our shuffling feet. It raised its behind into the air, awaiting predators with a different kind of explosion, a stink that would go unnoticed by the giants towering above. I tapped my mom on the arm. “Stinkbug,” I said, pointing. She nodded and smiled.

***

Located in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, China Lake had been built so rocket scientists could design and detonate weapons in the same place. The spot was chosen for both its emptiness during World War II and its proximity to Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology. The United States Navy claimed to have found the perfect “desert wasteland,” a place with nothing there to kill. Caltech’s rocket scientists could drive two to three hours and blow things up at a safe distance from LA’s suburban sprawl.

At first, it was all about making rockets better than Hitler’s. But after the war, a strange thing happened: China Lake kept growing. It was built to be temporary but had slowly developed a life of its own. Before long, it expanded from a cluster of Quonset huts to an area the size of Rhode Island, more than a million acres in all. Soon, 75 percent of all “free world conventional weapons” — the non­nuclear, non­communist kind — would be designed at this odd inland navy base. My home.

The center of the base, where everyone lives, is at the bottom of Indian Wells Valley, though the navy also owns the small desert mountain ranges on three sides — all used as testing sites. On the fourth side, to the west, are the highest peaks in the “lower forty­ eight,” the Sierra Nevada mountains. Owens Peak is our peak, the tallest we can see. It determines when day and night begins at China Lake. Next to the base town is a large desert playa, the base’s name­ sake: China Lake, named after the Chinese laborers who once mined borax from the lake bed. Outside the dry lake’s edges, the valley is blanketed by creosote bushes, which over time form rings of clones to protect the “mother” at the center from the bracing wind. Test pilots say the pattern looks like a bull’s­eye, but they’re the only ones who get to see the base from above since even the airspace is restricted. There are aerial photographs that show the valley littered with bomb craters and targets like white­painted Xs, fake houses, and old military airplanes, tanks, and railroad cars. Almost anything can be blown up. There is even an old Vietnamese­-style bridge left over from that war, half­exploded in the rolling brown hills.

I grew up in the age of missiles, which are essentially rockets with brains. They can hunt you down and will not just fly off willy­nilly to who ­knows­ where. If you’re lucky, that is. China Lake is famous for its target­-tracking missiles, dubbed “smart weapons,” though it can be hard to get those missiles to hit their targets, to be as “smart” as they should be. More often than not, they are like errant children. This is why the base’s first logo was a cross­eyed jackrabbit riding an out­of­control missile. Nevertheless, the right mixture of a successful missile test, perfect desert blooms, and blue skies will bring a smile to any China Laker’s face.

China Lake is a strange ship in the desert, but it was also my home. Every morning at 7:15, my family would drive through the main gate, showing our badges to a U.S. Marine standing outside a closet­sized guardhouse. My dad went to work on the Sidewinder missile — it was his job to make sure it hit its targets — and my mom on the Tomahawk. My sister worked on base inventory, counting cir­ cuit boards and bombs. I worked as a secretary as soon as I could drive. Of course, we could not talk about anything we did on the base, even to one another. We lived in secrecy.

***

My mom and I walked down into Renegade Canyon as basalt walls closed in on us, blackened with the lichens and molds of age. Into this dark surface were etched images of two­headed bighorn sheep, men with helmet­sized heads, and women with giant earrings and spears.

“And remember, this is an active bombing range,” the bomber man said, as if reading my mind. “Do not get lost.” My mom glared at me. Then he added, “But don’t worry — they don’t bomb the canyon….or at least they try not to.” He chuckled again. I liked him already.

As sunshine, desert wildflowers, and cacti flooded my senses, memories came rushing back. The incongruousness of the place made me want to laugh out loud, to become delirious like a Paiute on drugs. I started a skip­run like my father’s into the canyon and felt that desert elation seep inside me, the living wilderness embracing me. The guide faded into the distance. The ordnance was forgotten.

I knew where I was. Home?

***

At first, it was hard to attract women to China Lake. Maybe it was the slot machines at the officers’ club; or the taxi to the brothels at the nearby mining town of Red Mountain; or the bikini­ clad “pinup” girl in every issue of the Rocketeer, with captions like “Eyes are upon shapely Philippine actress Sonja.” The nearby defunct mining town of Red Mountain advertised itself as a “living ghost town” — complete with women dressed like Old West barmaids and rooms above the bar where you could take them for a little living history. According to the base’s first commander, the men who came to work at China Lake were “war­weary veterans, with nervous disorders and physical problems,” just back from the battlefields of

World War II. It was not a place that attracted missile wives.

The navy claimed the Indian Wells Valley in 1943. At the time, it was home to the Desert Kawaiisu and Panamint Shoshone, though Sherman Burroughs, who discovered the land, told the navy there was “no one there.” The valley was full of mining tunnels but not many miners, the Gold Rush having ended decades before. The few miners who remained had turned into what we call “desert rats.” One was living in three sedans —one for a kitchen, another a parlor, and the third for his bedroom — on the lake bed. Another was known locally as the “Mad Doctor” in the struggling town of Crumville, later renamed Ridgecrest. People thought he was mad because he gave up his job as an LA physician to strike it rich in the desert, though there was little gold to be had in the Indian Wells Valley. Crumville was a frontier town full of missionaries, saloons, brothels, homesteaders, and gunplay, with about one hundred people.

In its early years, the base was half war town and half Wild West. But base commander Sherman Burroughs had bigger plans. He wanted a permanent research facility to rival Hitler’s military base on the Baltic Sea, where engineers developed the V­1 and V­2 missiles that rained down on London in the Blitz. China Lake, Burroughs declared, should be “an American Peenemünde…a place where no­ body knew what the hell was going on.” There would be, Burroughs said, “a huge laboratory wherein men and arms would be perfected for winning this war and for safe­guarding our national integrity in the future.” He wanted perfect men and perfect missiles. Today, a giant white “B” still hovers on a hill overlooking the town, commemorating Burroughs as our founder.

Burroughs’s only problem was women. Unlike sailors, who had no choice where they were sent, scientists would not permanently move to the desert without their wives. So China Lake was forced to clean up its image and look “safe” enough for women. First, the navy shut down the base casinos and the shuttle to Red Mountain. A short promotional film was made of the slot machines being run over by bulldozers, guaranteeing they would not miraculously reappear. Prospective employee families could watch this video, which lauded the “family friendly” environment of China Lake.

Next, they went after the brothels. In a 1952 memo sent to all base personnel, Captain Walter Vieweg, China Lake’s commander at the time, wrote, “All service personnel are prohibited from patronizing, entering, or frequenting the Owl Café and Hotel, Helen’s Place (also known as ‘Goat Ranch’), Mamie’s Place (also known as ‘Hog Ranch’), and J and J rooms.” All houses of prostitution. Unfortunately, the memo had the opposite of its intended effect since it pro­ vided directions to each of these secret establishments. It was even posted on their doors, serving as an inadvertent advertisement. The first thing I noticed about this memo when I found it in the National Archives was the name Captain Vieweg, the namesake of my elementary school after Groves. I weirdly thought of second grade, prostitutes, and farm animals all at once. It didn’t sit well in my stomach.

China Lake became a family­friendly environment by aggressively promoting activities such as church ice cream socials, Disney movie screenings, and the base’s endless “hobby clubs.” There was “Pebble Pups” (I joined), “Rock Hounds” (my sister joined), “Toast­ masters” (my mom joined), and “The Wildflower Club” (we all joined). There were also clubs for fencing, four­wheel driving, scuba diving, Ping­Pong, square dancing, watercolor painting, junior rifle, and many more. Christine and I chose the rock clubs because they met in the Quonset huts across the street from our duplex on Rowe Street. There, we learned to polish and grind desert rocks and slice geodes, making them perfect for our wall shelves.

My mom was assigned to Code 35203 as a “math aid,” but all I knew was that she worked with the Gerber photoplotter, a machine that etches computer­drawn circuit board designs onto negatives.

But it turned out the best idea for keeping women in town was simply to hire them. The navy began to advertise a class called “Housewife to Draftsman in Only Twelve Weeks” in the local Rocketeer in 1951. Over time, this turned into a quota system for hiring women on the base. So when my mom suddenly said, “I need to get out of the house, Earl. I’m going crazy at home,” we all knew what that meant.

My mom wasn’t happy if she wasn’t working; she had always meant to return to work at some point.

“Hm…” My dad thought aloud for a moment. “Okay, you could give it a try. You might have a shot.”

“But I would hate to leave the kids alone after school,” she said. “Do you really think that’s okay?”

“We’ll be all right,” I quickly replied. “Christine can watch me.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“We can get a babysitter, Mary,” my dad offered instead.

So, just like that, my mom disappeared. She had outstrategized us, getting a job in a section of the base called “Area E,” short for “Experimental Air Center,” where my sister and I were not allowed to go. Her division was Electronics Warfare. She told us only that rattlesnakes liked to sun themselves on the long airstrip there, which had been built for the B­29 bomber to carry the atom bomb. Overnight, we were a triangle that had imploded. The weapons were her new babies, not us, and one big family probably stood over and looked down at the weapons, smiling and holding hands.

I wanted her back waiting at home to see if we lived or died in the desert.

My mom was assigned to Code 35203 as a “math aid,” but all I knew was that she worked with the Gerber photoplotter, a machine that etches computer­drawn circuit board designs onto negatives. I only knew this because, when I called her at work, the secretary would often say, “She’s with the Gerber now.” Not me. The Gerber was in a darkroom where she could not be disturbed.

What I did not know was what she did in there. Only later did I find out that through a side door she would feed the Gerber negative paper. Then its innards would slowly digest it, spitting out drawings etched with a xenon lamp. It took around ten hours. After the negative was done, it was passed to the photo lab for processing, then glued to a sheet of copper and placed in a chemical vat that would eat away everything but the etched design. The final product was installed in the missile’s nose, then taken to the desert for tests. My mom’s boss designed the circuit boards. My mom programmed the Gerber with Xs and Ys.

Together, they built the brains that made the missiles run.

Sometimes her secretary would say, “She can’t come to the phone. She’s in the darkroom, plotting.” At first, I thought she was plotting against our neighbors or the Southern Baptists, but later she told me she was making photo plots, which was all she ever said about work. I would picture my mom with stacks of giant blueprints in front of her or negatives hung on ropes with clothespins. In my imagination, she was always in a dimly lit basement. A scary basement without a phone.

It was only when I got to visit my mom for Open House Day that I realized this was not the case. Open House Day was a yearly event in which families were allowed to visit even the secret parts of the base. It took place on Armed Forces Day, which should have been called “Children’s Day” since it was really for the kids. It started with a Kiwanis Club pancake breakfast in the parking lot, followed by a long drive through two extra gates to get to my mom’s office.

My mom’s building was next to Skytop, where they tested missile motors by holding them upside down and letting their engines roar. On the outside, her building was government gray and square, like any other, but inside it looked like a hospital where an epidemic had broken out. There were white, antiseptic­looking machines and people walking around in long white doctor coats with goggles on. Some also had headphones on. We walked by the big, humming machines while I gaped.

To my left, I briefly glimpsed a room lined with scary­looking teal blue spikes hanging from the ceiling. It looked like the kind of torture chamber where the walls are lined with nails and gradually squeeze the person inside to death, like what my dad had read to me from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” But my mother herded us by as though it were all normal. “That’s the photoplotter,” she said, pointing out a machine tucked into its own separate room with an open door.

So that’s where she hides from me, I thought. But my mom kept walking.

She led us down a white hallway to her office — a closet­sized room full of desktop computers, some dusty and half­forgotten and others brand­new. Even the wall seemed to be a large computer processor, covered in reels and slots and knobs. It looked like a cluttered control room on the starship Enterprise. On her desk was a microscope like the one she once used to look at giardia in stool samples, but bigger.

My mom pointed at the microscope and said cheerily, “Hey, take a look in there and see what your mother does for a living!”

All I saw was a trail of snail slime on a negative. “Yuck,” I exclaimed.

“That’s for the circuit board,” she said, sounding suddenly defensive. To me, it was not a fancy missile mounted on a velvet wall like my dad had at the entrance to his office at Michelson Laboratory, which everyone called “Mike Lab.” It was just snail doodle.

I looked again and said, “It looks like scribbling. Can we go back to that room with blue spikes?”

“Oh, here I’ll show you,” she said, and then ran out of the room, returning with a square brass chip. “See, look at that. From the negative, which you’ve been looking at through the lens, we make these chips.”

I still did not see what it had to do with missiles, which were fast and sleek. She tried to explain: “See, this computer chip goes into a missile and tells it where to go.”

“Oh,” I said, putting the chip down.

“Well, it beats working with stool samples.” She laughed and turned away.

All I wanted to know was what was in the room with the blue spikes. So I inched out of her office, hoping she would not notice if I moved really slow. As she talked to Christine, who was taking a proper scientific interest, I made it down the hallway to take a peek at the walls lined with three­foot­long Styrofoam spikes painted blue. Everything seemed modeled after Star Trek here.

My mom was behind me in a moment.

“What’s in this weird blue room?” I asked, half­scared.

“Oh, that’s the anechoic chamber,” she said, flicking her hand at it as if it were an annoyance. “There’s no sound or echo in there when the door is shut.”

There was a suspended walkway extending into the center, and even the backside of the door was covered in blue spikes. “Can we go inside?” I asked.

Not waiting for an answer, I darted forward, wanting to be sur­rounded by spikes and silence.

“Don’t go in there!” my mom yelled, running after me, but I made it inside long enough to notice the sound being sucked out of me.

“It’s not safe right now.” My mom grabbed me and pulled me back. “There’s a problem with the heat melting the glue that holds the spikes to the ceiling and they’re as sharp as a knife. You could get hurt.”

“But what’s it for?” I asked from a safe distance within my mom’s certain hands.

“That’s where the scientists test the circuitry, to be sure that radio and sound signals won’t interfere with the missile design.”

“Is that why my ears felt funny?” I asked.

“Karen, you shouldn’t have gone in there,” she said, shaking her head.

“Karen likes to cause trouble,” my sister said in her missy­know­it­all voice while standing next to my dad. “You shouldn’t have gone inside. Anyone would know that.”

I stuck my tongue out at her.

Then my mom brightened up. “The guys sometimes put people in there for fun and shut the door.” She laughed. “You need sound to balance, so people fall over when they close the door. But now it’s broken.”

“Well, I hope they don’t fix it,” I said, feeling that old claustrophobic panic sweep over me again. “Or they might throw me in there next year.”

“They might,” my mom acknowledged matter­of­factly.

I was relieved to leave her world behind and head to Hangar 3, where China Lake’s Search and Rescue Team was supposed to be. They were the people who rescued stranded, lost, and injured hikers in the Sierras. They rescued so many people that I once assumed that was why there needed to be a navy base out here in the desert. People would fall off cliffs in the Sierras and then get picked up and dusted off by Search and Rescue and have their pictures taken for the Rocketeer. We would laugh at all the stupid tourists, but only if they lived, of course. It was amazing how many different ways people could find to kill themselves in the Sierras. Cliff falls, lightning, getting lost. Those mountains just devoured people. There was an old stone hut on the top of Mount Whitney that people would run to during a storm and get hit by lightning since it was the highest point. Search and Res­ cue’s job was to stop all that. I adored them and thought that one day I would marry one of them.

In Hangar 3, Search and Rescue had set up a climbing wall to teach people how to climb Mt. Whitney from the hard side. They tied me onto a rope and promised to rescue me if I fell. That was their job, so I was not too scared. After that, they taught me how to bring the dead rubber lady back to life with CPR and mouth­to­mouth. Both inside the hangar and out on the airfield, there were, of course, all the missiles and planes displayed too. I got to climb into the cockpit of an A­4 Skyhawk to have my picture taken.

It was amazing how many different ways people could find to kill themselves in the Sierras.

There was even a boy from Burroughs High School in a bamboo Vietcong tiger cage in Hangar 3. The sign explained that these were used to torture people in Vietnam who were too big to fit inside comfortably. They were meant for tigers. The boy from Burroughs was sitting in there as his reward for building the best tiger cage. He did not look that comfortable, so I guess it was working.

“Why is he in a bamboo cage, Mommy?”

“Because that’s what happens in Vietnam.”

“What is Vietnam?”

“It’s a country we’re at war with.”

“Why are we at war?”

“Because they do bad things like put men in cages.”

“But didn’t we put him in that cage?”

“It’s just an example, Karen, of what they do. You ask too many questions.”

After the tiger cage and the anechoic chamber, I started to think something strange was going on at the base. There were torture machines everywhere.

Finally, it was time to go home. I got a bracelet inscribed with a POW’s name on the way out and was told I had to wear it until he was found or released. When I lost the bracelet in the desert, I was convinced that one POW never came home because of me. But I had learned a lot about war that day and about what moms do in the military. I had climbed the climbing wall and seen a tiger cage. So I was not willing to say I wish I had never gone there, gotten that bracelet, and maybe killed that POW.

***

Back at home, my mom went back to her Gerber photoplotter, named after its designer, Joseph Gerber, who has nothing to do with baby food. Nevertheless, it was my mom’s new baby. My mom said the Gerber had to be kept in the dark and cleaned often. It also emitted a moaning howl that was loud enough to require headphones and could blind my mom with its xenon lamp unless she wore her dark safety goggles. It turned out that the Gerber’s sensitivities made people sensitive too.

Her boss, Mr. Bukowski, designed missile circuitry and was a world­renowned expert on “spirals,” which I imagined was a Slinky so hard to design that it required a Ph.D. Their office, which was miles from anywhere, was a magnet for desert creatures seeking shade or water. Once, she said, a rattlesnake was found under a desk at work. Even so, it seemed to me, she was far more worried about the Gerber than that snake.

Her problems all started when she tried to change the filter in the Gerber. Technically, she was supposed to call the Gerber people for that, but she was a Depression­era kid and believed in fixing things herself. She tried to explain the problem with the Gerber people in a memo to Mr. Bukowski: “Their willingness to declare our lamps un­ usable may be motivated by their desire to sell a modification to the Gerber.” She thought a new filter would fix everything instead, that it would be a simple change.

But a co­worker of hers, Harris in Operations, disagreed. He was a middle­aged man with a loud voice and saggy face who thought those Equal Rights Amendment “Freedom Train” feminists were going too far. He supported Phyllis Schlafly, who said women should stay at home. So when he happened to catch my mom changing the filter, disobeying protocol, he knew he had found an easy target. He stormed in, towering over her, and shouted, “That’s an Operations job. Our filter changer handles that.”

My mom was taken aback by his bulk and apparent confusion. There was no “filter changer,” as far as she knew. She had assumed he would tell her to call Gerber. Nevertheless, she was driven back by his size and the way he leaned in over her. “Get out of here!” he yelled. “Is there a filter changer?” she wrote to Mr. Bukowski from the safety of her office. He had not heard of one either. They decided to wait and see what would happen next.

After a few days with work at a standstill and no filter changer in sight, my mom wrote to her division head — above even Mr. Bukowski — to explain that she was not allowed to change the filter and thus was unable to work. A simple filter change, she explained, would force the machine to recalibrate and fix the problem. Until then, any plots she printed would be bad. The spirals would not have their perfect arc. The missiles would not fly.

For Harris, that memo to Mr. Bukowski’s boss may as well have been an official declaration of war. When he got wind of it, he began his own memo­writing campaign. First, he sent one to my mom, even though her office was only down the hallway from his, stating that all further requests for plotting had to go through him. He accused my mom of secretly “tampering” with the Gerber and attached a “request form” for her to mail to him when she wanted to use the plotter again.

“More copies are available in my office,” he wrote.

The number of memos written, encoded, and passed between people who were working in the same hall might seem surprising to those who are not in Defense. There, everything has to be documented, double­entry­style, and preferably in acronyms. Otherwise, it does not exist.

Meanwhile, at home, my mom started lying on the couch and not wanting to get up, while my dad kept having to travel for wind tunnel tests. Though he never said where he went, he always came back with gifts. There was the black Eskimo doll, made from Alaskan sealskin, that you could wear like a purse. There was a porcupine made of rabbit fur. There was a handmade Native American doll and a pretty blue dream catcher that read “New Mexico Dreams.” He left me little bread crumbs, clues about where he was, which I cherished like pieces of him. My dad often complained, “I don’t understand why China Lake can’t build a proper wind tunnel,” which at least helped me know he was not leaving because of me.

“What’s a wind tunnel?” I asked.

“It’s where we make the wind blow really hard so we can watch something fly inside.”

“Like a kite?” My dad liked to build kites, then take us out into the desert to fly them, which was his way of teaching us aerodynamics.

“No, but someone once put a duck in at Mike lab to watch it fly,” he said. I wondered then if that duck liked being put in a wind tunnel or if the men who put him there were just being mean. I did not think I would like to be put in there. That duck would have to just fly and fly and fly while all the men laughed at him.

Meanwhile at home, my mom started lying on the couch and not wanting to get up, while my dad kept having to travel for wind tunnel tests.

“Why do you have to travel,” I asked, “if you have a tunnel big enough for a duck at home?”

“It’s not big enough,” he said. If he had a big one, he could stay.

Today, I picture my mom’s days unfolding at work like a twisted ballet, with the Gerber in the middle of the stage. Dancers come and go, sometimes blocking access to the machine, sometimes hiding be­hind it. Mom and Harris are locked in a ballet battle until one of them dies in the end, falling in a curtain of red ballet blood. Had the Gerber been a shrine and whoever approached it a prophet, the problem would have been that Harris did not believe in female prophets. He thought my mom was a false prophet. He thought his machine was good the way it was and did not need anything but him.

In contrast, for my mom, the Gerber was a finicky child who had to be coaxed and preened so it would perform well. She knew that if the needs of the Gerber were ignored, it would create bad plots, little temper tantrums that would lead to bad missiles. Bad missiles made my dad leave town to fix them. And if a missile left a navy carrier chute with a bad circuit, there would be just one big plunk and then a long journey to the bottom of the ocean with all that money trailing behind. My mom believed the troops depended upon her and did not want a plunk. She did not want to waste that money. To her, sabotaging the Gerber meant sabotaging U.S. Defense. My mom must have thought she was facing an eternal enemy of the United States: treason. And all because Harris was withholding access to the plotter.

Finally, according to my mom’s notes, which told me the story of this drama, a new photoplotter operator appeared, Martha, who was petite with feathered red hair, diamond stud earrings, and bright red nails. She was a “downtime” person, which meant her “JO” (Job Order) had run out, leaving her without an assignment or funding from a particular missile program. In China Lake, to be on down­time was humiliating. It meant you were wasting “overhead,” or tax­ payer money. You would be shunned as if you were contagious. Downtime people had nothing to do because they were not popular or smart enough to be picked for work on a particular missile. For instance, my dad put “AIM­9L” on his work stubs for years because he was being paid with money allotted for the Sidewinder. He was a Sidewinder person, whereas a downtime person is nothing. It meant you did not stay in one place for long but were more like a “temp” worker, sent to fill in holes everywhere, and the hole at my mom’s of­fice was suddenly, mysteriously, for a “filter changer.”

So Martha was sent to Harris, who put her in charge of the Gerber. One had to wonder how she got to be in charge, to the point that in the end she could stop production on the Sidearm. Apparently, she had only a high school degree. Was Harris having an affair with her and treating the Gerber like a present for her? Was she just that pretty? Whatever the reason, my mom’s access to the Gerber did not improve after Martha arrived. Once, after getting two hours with the plotter, my mom had to beg Harris for two more.

Then he yelled at her, “Can’t you do anything right?”

She started to cry.

And the filter was never changed, not for four long months. If my mom believed in “working as good as any man,” Martha clearly had a different strategy. She believed in the power of rumors. First, Martha wrote a memo claiming my mom had been imagining problems with the Gerber and was compulsively tampering with it. Next, she started printing plots and showing them to everyone to prove the Gerber worked fine. In response, my mom printed her own plots, pointing out the problem to Martha. My mom wrote to Harris, “Only a non­trivial design, such as a modulated spiral, would likely repeat the problem.”

In response, Harris accused her of calling him “trivial.”

Who knows how long this “print off” might have lasted if Mr. Bukowski had not finally intervened. “The plots are bad,” he wrote to Harris. “I should not have to tell you this.”

Next, Martha tried a different strategy. She claimed my mom’s software instructions were the problem, not the Gerber. She refused to communicate any further with my mom, who she said was being irrational. Because of this, Mr. Bukowski had to be constantly on the phone, even while on vacation, as a mediator between Martha and my mom. He even wrote to his boss to complain.

Finally, Martha hit on a winning rumor. “Why do you think Mr. Bukowski treats her better than everyone else?” she whispered, lifting an eye in insinuation. My mom overheard this and knew there was no evidence to prove Martha wrong this time. There was nothing to print, nothing mathematical to prove, which was her specialty. And rumors will always find allies. Soon my mom heard people whispering in the hallways that she was Mr. Bukowski’s “pet.” They questioned her credentials, wondering how she got the job without a degree in computer science, only medical technology.

One day, she heard something rattling in her desk drawer and opened it to find bullets. “They were about this size —” She held her fingers an inch apart when she told me.

“What did you do?” I asked, my eyes twice as big.

“I told some people about it, but they just shrugged. Then the janitor said he could use them, so I gave them to him. He said they were for a rifle.”

“What were they doing out there?” I said.

My mom shrugged. “I assumed they were for rattlesnakes,” she said. “But maybe they were for spies.” Then she laughed.

At the time, she was not laughing. Instead, she retreated to the couch and called in sick. That was when Mr. Bukowski finally stepped in. To me, Mr. Bukowski sounded like the kind of guy who could take a lot but had his breaking point. His parents had escaped from the Soviet Union, after all, so he must have known plenty about cat­and­mouse games, government bullies, and espionage. He decided he could play.

“I want you to keep an eye on the Gerber room and report to me who is using it every day,” he first wrote to the micro­miniature lab. They were in the room next to the Gerber lab.

Soon the spy was writing on U.S. Navy letterhead every day, “No one today.” Next, Mr. Bukowski passed this information up to his boss: “No one today.” Evidence against Harris began to mount. Cases were being prepared. The plan was to prove that Harris was deliberately withholding the Gerber from my mother, claiming it was in use when it was not. They needed the double­entry ledger for that.

One day, Mr. Bukowski urgently needed plots for a trip to Dallas, but when my mom went to the Gerber room, she found it locked. The secretary then told her that both Martha and Harris had gone out of town for a few days and had taken the key. In a panic, my mom burst into Mr. Bukowski’s high­level meeting to explain. A sea of desert­grizzled engineering faces looked up at her.

“They’ve…they’ve gone,” my mom sputtered, humiliated. “They took the Gerber key!”

Mr. Bukowski had to cancel his trip to Dallas, the contractors had to postpone the missile production schedule, and ultimately the missiles may not have made it to the field in time. This was when Mr. Bukowski, a mild­mannered Polish man whose parents had told him to be grateful every day for what he had, finally lost it and was no longer grateful. He wrote to his boss, “The generating of high-quality Gerber artwork has always been a challenge and undoubtedly will continue to be so; but the events of the last four weeks were almost enough to make me look for some other kind of work.”

She knew that if the needs of the Gerber were ignored, it would create bad plots, little temper tantrums that would lead to bad missiles.

And because Mr. Bukowski never lost it, a decision from above finally came down. A memo arrived from Code 35, above them all, copied to everyone involved. It read simply, “Any problems with the Gerber will be solved by Mary.” The verdict was in.

My mom lost many battles but finally won the war. But war leaves scars, and living next to the enemy, even after a détente, is never easy. After that, my mom suffered from a lack of confidence. Since my parents were from different branches and could talk only on a “need to know” basis, she could not tell my dad what was going on. He started to draw the blinds when she was on the couch, afraid she would die as his mother had done. He worried about having to travel so much with all of us left in his wake, bouncing and about to upturn like a boat. My sister would stare at him with her serious glasses face, perched and waiting for him to fall over too.

The Gerber never fully recovered either. After being fussed and fought over so much, it decided it had had enough even after my mother got full custody. The fight had been too long, the adjustments too few. Its lamp exploded, destroying the mirror and the lens. After that, my mom explained, “It never got back into perfect adjustment.”

I would not be surprised if Harris blew it up.

***

If I asked my mom what she did at work, she would always say, “Oh, I was at the bottom of the totem pole — nothing important,” followed by, “People always said I was too slow.” Of course, partly this was my mom’s personality. Like my dad, she could be shy, humble, and stoical. She once said, “I’ve always been a nobody all my life. Your dad was always more popular at church.” I found this hard to believe since my dad was the quietest person I have ever known. Nevertheless, after a lifetime of hearing my mother say such things, I truly came to believe them. At least, I assumed my father had the more important job at China Lake. Imagine my surprise when I discovered her work file, which held the Gerber memos.

They also held so much more.

My mom started as a GS­3 math aid, which involved using a min­iature calculator and “keypunching data and programs” into the main­ frame computer, a machine that took up the whole basement and had to be fed wallet­sized cards full of punch holes. But within a decade, she wrote of her credentials, “I have a system level knowledge of Tomahawk’s navigation,” including its “Inertial Navigation System (INS), Global Positioning System (GPS), barometric and radar altimeters, pre­stored terrain altitude profiles (TERCOM maps), and terrain imagery.” She could change a torpedo heading or launch point with the stroke of a DOS (disk operating system) programming line and, out of sheer boredom, once designed a laser bar­coding program years before anyone had heard of such a thing. She wanted to keep track of government property because she thought too much of it was disappearing. While my dad evaluated pitch and roll, my mom prepared the simula­tion programs and test plans for him to follow. She plotted his results. She analyzed his data. In one yearly review, her division boss wrote, “She is a perfectionist who holds the team together and could easily do any of our jobs. She needs a substantial raise.” Imagine that. She not only wrote computer programs, but also converted them to other languages as computers were evolving. She could even build a computer.

After some research, I discovered that my mom’s job was not that unusual for women at the time. Called “computresses,” women were once hired to operate forty­pound calculators that did nothing more than add, subtract, and divide. They did the math for the engineers. Back then, this was considered “clerical,” or women’s work, like typing. But slowly, computers evolved from these motor­driven calculators, and women were the only ones who knew how to use them.

By the time my mom arrived on the scene, calculators were already “miniature,” but computers were enormous. She was at the forefront of the shift to computers that was a room­sized IBM mainframe set up in the basement. She told stories about “punch cards” and how the IBM had to constantly be fed with them. That was “programming” then. Ironically, as computers became central to the process of build­ ing a missile, and then guiding missiles, women became central too. The men did not know how to use them. My mom once said to me, “I was shocked that these guys did not know how to do basic things like plotting. I had to do everything for them. Except for Mr. Bukowski, of course. He knew it was important to learn.” Nevertheless, the men still got the big salaries.

Imagine that.

***

When I told my mom only a few years ago that I had found and read her work notes, she was not angry, as I had feared. She simply looked over the contraband, then said, “So now you know what I did at work, though it was a lot more than just working on the Gerber.”

“I know!” I said. “You never told me, Mom.”

“Well, we’re not supposed to,” she replied, stern and work-like.

Then she brightened up and said, “I once drove a missile to Newport Beach.” She laughed.

“What do you mean?” I asked, shocked.

“I mean, I put it in the trunk of the Toyota Camry and headed off to LA. It was supposed to have some tests done there.”

“But what if you crashed?” I asked. In Los Angeles, there were grid­ locks, drive­by shootings, and Lamborghinis speeding by at 120 mph.

My mom said she drove slowly, as she always does, and tried to focus on the destination: Lockheed Martin. “That must have been weird,” I commented.

“I noticed my hands had turned white by the time I got there. I was gripping the steering wheel so hard. So I decided to get off the freeway and go to the mall,” she said, laughing. “The missile sat in the parking lot while I shopped.”

“Which mall?”

“You know, the one in Brea. I shopped for a few hours, and after that, I was fine to drive. But now, when I think about leaving that missile in a crowded parking lot, I wonder what I was thinking. Any­ one could have broken in.”

“Was it armed?” I asked, picturing something far worse than a robbery.

“Oh no, it wouldn’t fit in my trunk that way. It was just the nose. But what if the police had stopped me and wanted to look in the trunk? No one told me what to do in that case.”

I think my parents have different stories from those of other parents.

Then she looked at the notes again and said, “It’s a good thing I didn’t write down what the real problems were at work. This was nothing in comparison.”

“And I bet you won’t tell me now,” I said.

“Of course not. You would put it in your book.”

***

From A Girl’s Guide to Missles by Karen Piper, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2018 by Karen Piper.