A smart, self-aware memoir of life in a Cold War outpost.
If you’re a government agency, there are three reasons to hide your activities from public view: because they really need to be kept secret, because the activities are fundamentally useless, or because “you want to rip the money bag open and get out a shovel, because there is no accountability whatsoever.” So an official told Piper (Literature and Geography/Univ. of Missouri; The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos, 2014, etc.) in what amounts to a mantra for all of China Lake, a test facility in the hottest, most forbidding part of the Mojave Desert. The author writes of a childhood spent in a household headed by two project workers at China Lake. It was a world of missiles and launches and secrets in a time when the world seemed to be falling to bits—there was Vietnam, for one thing, and then the Manson family zipping around in the nearby desert in their dune buggies (“The Mansons even shopped at our 7-Eleven in Ridgecrest, where Christine and I bought our candy”). By Piper’s account, it was a preternaturally strange place in a strange time punctuated by Amway rallies and enlivened with unhealthy spats of interoffice politics. But interesting things happened there, too, including experiments to turn the weather into a weapon, to say nothing of the business of turning hardscrabble China Lake, a place of prewar brothels and hermits, into a place suitable for straight-arrow military personnel, civilian contractors, and their families. Piper’s account moves among the personal and the universal, with fine small coming-of-age moments. The narrative threatens to unravel a little when, following her father’s death, Piper acts on clues he left behind to follow his footsteps in other arenas of the Cold War, but she pulls everything into an effective—and affecting—whole meant to “ensure that history was not erased.”
A little-known corner of the Atomic Age comes into focus through Piper’s skilled storytelling.