Nobody Grows Up Wanting to Be a Missile-Maker
How Our Family Came to Rely on War
People don’t become weapons developers because they want to kill people. They build weapons because they want to do something else but cannot get a job in that something else. My dad wanted to build airplanes but was pulled into weapons when he was unemployed and worried about being able to feed his kids. Others wanted to build bridges or rocket ships. But once people end up in the world of weapons, they tend to stay. The benefits are that good. After a while, knowing that war fills your bellies, peace can feel like starvation. Even China Lake’s top brass once lamented “the rigors of peace time malnutrition.” Without a war the money dries up, people start losing their jobs, and housing values tumble. We knew our town could be closed down and our homes bulldozed. It is hard to explain what a salve war can be. Even as it devastates one community, it feeds another.
My dad divided his life into three stages: poverty, orphan, war (POW). Once he got to the last stage, he never got out. To be clear, he was not a real POW—he was just a person who ended up permanently stuck in war.
Orphaned by age twelve, my dad had been born to John and Esther Piper in a small iron-mining town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. John Piper worked and died in the iron mines like his dad, William, whose arm was blown off in a mining blast when he was fourteen. William survived his accident and wrote a poem that started “There may be a crack in life’s wall somewhere / Where the tender roots may find their way / To a fairer clime, as some declare— / I’m unconcerned while on the way. . . .” The only religion my dad’s family observed was stoicism, and they were good practitioners. Eventually, William got a wooden prosthesis.
His son John Piper was not so lucky in the Cornishman’s endless battle against the mines. In England, William’s dad had mined tin. In the U.S., it was iron. They kept mining like a hydra-headed monster, and John was just another fallen soldier. His death certificate said he died of “pleurisy,” or inflammation of the lungs, but my dad never trusted that explanation. His obituary presented a different theory, stating he “died of a broken heart.” I think that’s the version my dad believed.
My dad never spoke of his parents, which led me to grow up thinking no one had grandparents. It always surprised me when others disagreed. Eventually, to fill in that blank space and keep up with the grandparent stories of my friends, I would prod my dad about what his parents were like. “They were nice people,” was all I ever got. “Nice people,” he said, as if they were strangers he met on a bus and liked. I suppose it was the same for me, that they were only “Esther and John,” never Grandpa and Grandma. Nice people.
Esther had died the same year as John. “But from what?” I asked my dad.
“She had a headache for a year and then died,” my dad said sim ply, as if that were normal. Eventually, he added, “Her eyes were sensitive to the light, so we had to keep the blinds drawn.” Only much later did he confess to me that he thought it was his fault. When her headache was particularly bad, he said, he had insisted she get out of bed and take him to a Gene Autry movie. “I begged and begged, and the next day she died.”
He never insisted on anything after that.
Esther’s obituary claimed she died of heart disease, but this did not make sense to me either. Did heart disease make you want to live in the dark for a year? In the end, all I learned from my grandparents was that obituaries and death certificates lie—and that death does not like to be pigeonholed.
By the time John Piper died, my dad was already the lanky, undernourished-looking boy he would remain for the rest of his life. He had thin, light brown hair with, thankfully, a little curl to cover its sparseness, big ears, and a chin that seemed pointy only because his face was so thin. His sister, who was four years older, got married to avoid being sent to an orphanage, but my dad did not have that option. He was too young. Instead, he went to live with his aunt and uncle, the Bergs.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Berg died shortly after he moved in. My dad must have thought this whole family would be the next to go, that he might kill them too. Decades later, I found the invitation to Mrs. Berg’s funeral in my dad’s box of keepsakes. It read, “From the Berg Family. And Earl Piper.” I pictured him living in that space between his name and the Bergs’, dangling inappropriately at the end. In fact, I knew he would have remained indefinitely and elusively attached to the Berg family if not for Pearl Harbor. As it was, he stayed only four years, until he was seventeen and Pearl Harbor was attacked. As he told it, he had been working at a factory as a tool crib clerk, a kind of mechanic’s librarian, on that infamous day. When he heard the announcement on the radio, he knew he had to enlist, though he had to wait two more months to turn eighteen. Then he got a new uncle, one who would never die and leave him: Uncle Sam.
Like so many boys at the time, my dad had been enamored with Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and so he signed up to be a pilot. But his body failed him exactly three times, which left him where all washed-up pilots end up: as a navigator.
His first failure was not passing the weight test to get into the air force. He was always too little. But the recruiter, sensing my dad’s disappointment, had whispered to him, “Drink a lot of water and eat as many bananas as you can. Then come back.” If not for that recruiter, my dad would not have gone to war.
The second failure was during boot camp. Thrown into a pond and told to swim out during basic training, my dad sank and nearly drowned, which he attributed to having no fat. Someone had to jump in and save him, which made him afraid of water for the rest of his life. I still sometimes picture my dad’s eighteen-year-old body sinking down into the darkness of that pond where others would have floated. “Why me?” he must have thought. “Why me again?”
Nevertheless, he made it to the pilot training program, where his body failed him for the final time. He got the measles during the mid term exams and was abruptly kicked out of school. There was no time for measles in a war. No one jumped in to save him that time. Though my dad always looked embarrassed when he spoke about not being a pilot, he would undoubtedly end the tale with the part about bananas. “I had to throw up afterward,” he would say, chuckling at his own inadequacy. “But it worked.”
Soon he was navigating for transport flights out of Cornwall, sup plying the battlefields across North Africa, Western Europe, and even the Caribbean. For the first time, it must have seemed the world was more than a spare room, an iron mine, or a forest in Michigan. He spent most of the war in a glass bubble on top of the plane, “shoot ing” the stars with a sextant, trying to get a “celestial fix” in a world that had become lines of latitude and longitude on a map. Because the movement of the stars across the skies had been calculated to the second, my dad could figure out where he was by finding one or two stars and triangulating his position. Then he could calculate, with the help of timetables and a mathematical equation, his place in the universe. His absolute position. Who wouldn’t want that?
Between flights, my dad would practice navigation by walking the ocean footpath at night from his base in St. Mawgan to Newquay, Cornwall. He claimed he got a feel for the stars that way, timing his paces to calculate his velocity. Speed plus time plus direction plus the stars. My dad taught us all the calculations of war. I think he wanted to pass something on to us, a way to always find ourselves in the world when we were lost. “The stars will help locate you,” he would say.
By the age of nine, I thought war was a difficult math problem. It never occurred to me that humans, other than the men with their slide rules, were involved. I knew there was an elaborate chart of moving pieces and equations that someone was solving far away, but it did not involve us. Besides, there were really only “operations” on the base—Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Barrel Roll, and so on. There were so many of them that I stopped trying to keep track. There were no wars as far as I knew.
Only my dad had a war.
My favorite thing about my dad’s war was all the exotic cargo. My dad talked about flying bananas from Africa to England, where people had vitamin deficiencies. He talked about monkeys in Casablanca. He talked about flying blood. He carried children who had to get somewhere fast to stay alive. But he also flew illegal goods like rum and cigars from the Caribbean. He traded Chanel No. 5 from Paris for cigarettes in England. He brought silk nylons for girlfriends. To me, war sounded like a long sequence of barters: bananas for soldiers, Chanel No. 5 for cigarettes, nylons for girlfriends. It was a fabulous, globetrotting holiday with lots of free stuff. Who wouldn’t want to go to war?
“I was just a rumrunner during the war,” my dad once said, and my mom, sitting next to him, punched him in the knee.
“You could still be arrested,” she warned.
My dad said all he lost in the war was a chunk of earlobe to frost bite, which could have happened anywhere. He said he never wore hats, even during Michigan winters, to the consternation of his parents. Instead, he would check for spots of frostbite in the mirror when he got home, then try to warm them up with his mittens. So he did not blame the war even for his ear. He blamed his own stubbornness.
After the war, my dad moved to Seattle and went to the University of Washington on the GI Bill. He graduated with honors in aeronautical engineering and was recruited right away to work at Boeing. If he couldn’t fly planes, he said, he could make them fly. Though everything in his life was going according to plan, something must have felt wrong, because at age 29, after seeing a poster on a street pole one day, he ended up at a Billy Graham tent meeting.
Long after my dad died, my mom showed me a note he wrote to himself after that meeting, titled “Why I Became a Christian: My Testimony.” The sight of my father’s crisp writing style, fine-tuned from years of drawing perfect lines on graph paper for a living, shook me to the core like he must have been shaken then. “I realized I had no control over my life,” he wrote. “I didn’t like the way I was living but couldn’t do a thing about it.”
“Is he talking about drinking?” I asked my mom. She nodded. I knew my father drank during the war but never imagined it was a problem. He used to joke about “having a beer with the kids,” when we were no longer kids, simply to make my mom mad. But we knew he never would. Only after I saw that note did I realize that maybe war was not exactly what my father said it was. Maybe it was not all fun and games. After World War II, which killed around 60 million people, men and women started coming home with something they called “war neurosis” or “operational fatigue.” Now we call it post-traumatic stress disorder. Maybe that is why he felt he had “no control.” Maybe he knew some of those 60 million.
My dad’s note described Billy Graham, “He kept quoting the handwriting on the wall, and I knew if I were weighed in any balance I’d be found wanting.” So under that tent filled with ten thousand people, my dad walked down the aisle like hundreds of others. He found God, who became his new Uncle. There was Uncle Berg, then Uncle Sam, and finally Uncle God, who could not leave him.
After reading the Prayer of Salvation in the back corner of that tent, my dad was told to find a church. So when he saw a flyer outside the Swedish Baptist church that read, “After Billy Graham, What?” he must have thought it was a sign. Since he met my mother at that church, perhaps it was.
For my mom, there were only two stages in my dad’s life: preChristian dad and postChristian dad. We were not allowed to talk about pre Christian dad. “Your dad did some bad things before he found God,” she said. “But he was forgiven.” I pictured him torturing people in some dark, gangster-filled room out of The Godfather. Only later did I realize she meant he had sex and drank. Luckily for my mom, Christianity erased all that, at least almost. I think she was still bothered by what she said was gone. Since he had been washed anew by Jesus, it made sense that she would wince when he brought up the war with a wistful smile as if he wanted to go back to preChristian dad.
Since my dad was half Norwegian, on Esther’s side, their marriage was an unlikely alliance. Swedes and Norwegians have been arch rivals since the Swedes invaded everyone within reach ages ago. For the rest of their lives together, my mom would be the brunt of my dad’s Swedish jokes, and he her Norwegian ones. “Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds at the battle of Copenhagen,” we all learned to sing. “Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds a-chasin’ one Norwegian.” Christine and I, though mostly Swedish, usually sided with the underdog Norway, leaving my mom out in the cold.
From our house in Newport Hills, my dad took a bridge to the south in the morning to get to Boeing and another to the north at night to finish his master’s degree in aerospace engineering. My mom, who had a degree in medical technology, started “drawing blood and mix ing stool samples,” as she described her job at Swedish Hospital. While my dad made the space shuttle and the 747, my mom became an expert on parasites. They were happy, the opposite of starcrossed. My dad reveled in the miracle of having non-orphaned children, and my mom quit her job after my sister was born, thinking she was safe at last with this shy man who brought her flowers. They must have thought it a marvel that they were two adults who could survive on their own. In short, we were living the American dream until, quite simply, we were not.
Our problems began with the men on the moon. I was four and my sister was six at the time of the first moon landing. We were both too little to understand how it could ruin us. The problem was that after that “one small step for man,” there was really nowhere else for them to go. Mars was too far away, and the moon, unfortunately, did not have much to offer. So no more spaceships for Boeing. In beating the Soviet Union to the moon, America’s main goal had been accomplished. After that, we had to beat them in Vietnam, which was even more expensive. We could not have it both ways. Space walks or wars, not both. So the Apollo program gradually shut down, which hit Boeing hard, and my dad was fired along with 30 percent of their workforce. Boeing really should have planned a few misfires first, shooting people right past the moon just to keep the money rolling in. After twenty years at Boeing, my dad was left with no job and two little girls who had burst onto the scene with no clue about what had gone on before. After six months of unemployment, he would have taken anything when he got the job at China Lake. My mom would sometimes blame my dad for the way things turned out. “He was too shy,” she would say. “He wouldn’t assert himself.” And this was true.
The notes from his first interview at China Lake, which he kept in a box under his bed, described him as “shy to nervous” and said he was “a good candidate, except for his age: 49.” I thought of my dad as reserved, but to me that meant he was wise. The notes did not say that. In fact, it seemed a bit cruel that they gave those notes to him. He could not get younger, after all.
“He was never much of a go-getter,” my mom used to say. He clearly preferred to be alone with his family, listening to his kids sing “Thumbelina” in the back seat of our Plymouth Valiant. We were little songbirds, full of life, like the astronauts from Apollo 17 who had skipped across the moon singing, “I was strolling on the moon one day, / In the merry, merry month of May . . . do do do be do.” It was the last time anyone walked on the moon. Those men had looked really silly and could not harmonize like Christine and me. But they were having such fun. “Isn’t this a neat way to travel?” astronaut Harrison Schmitt had said. I sometimes wondered about them. Would they have wanted to stay up there floating above the world if they had known the time for Apollo missions, for singing and dancing, was over back on Earth?
Or would they have wanted to come down and build weapons too?
From A Girl’s Guide to Missiles by Karen Piper, courtesy Viking. Copyright 2018, Karen Piper.