'A Girl's Guide' To Growing Up On A Secretive Missile Test Site When Karen Piper was 6, her family moved to the Mojave Desert. In A Girl's Guide To Missiles she describes how her parents designed weapons, but she didn't understand how it all connected to war.
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'A Girl's Guide' To Growing Up On A Secretive Missile Test Site

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'A Girl's Guide' To Growing Up On A Secretive Missile Test Site

'A Girl's Guide' To Growing Up On A Secretive Missile Test Site

'A Girl's Guide' To Growing Up On A Secretive Missile Test Site

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/638543717/638580139" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When Karen Piper was 6, her family moved to the Mojave Desert. In A Girl's Guide To Missiles she describes how her parents designed weapons, but she didn't understand how it all connected to war.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Missiles, smart weapons were the family business for my guest, Karen Piper. In 1971, when she was 6, her family moved to the secretive China Lake naval weapons center and test site in the Mojave Desert where her parents designed missiles. Her father worked on the Sidewinder missile. It was his job to make sure it hit its targets. Her mother worked on the Tomahawk missile. Her sister worked on base inventory counting circuit boards and bombs. And when Karen was in her teens, she worked as a secretary. But everything involving work had to be kept secret, even within the family.

Karen Piper has written a new memoir called "A Girl's Guide To Missiles: Growing Up In America's Secret Desert." The book also has the story of a cover-up on the test site. Her other books include "The Price Of Thirst: Global Water Inequality And The Coming Chaos" and "Left In The Dust: How Race And Politics Created A Human And Environmental Tragedy In L.A." She's a professor of literature and geography at the University of Missouri.

Karen Piper, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us more about what kinds of weapons were made and tested at China Lake when you were growing up.

KAREN PIPER: All kinds of weapons, but the premier weapon that everyone is proud of on the base is the Sidewinder because it's had the widest and most continuous use since it went into production in 1956. But we also make - you know, made chemical weapons - don't make those anymore - make non-lethal weapons or less-lethal weapons, like tear gas. We made napalm. So the main thing, though, is missiles.

GROSS: What an environment to grow up in.

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: So I guess this is asking the obvious, but why was it located in a desert?

PIPER: Oh, that's kind of a funny story because it was initially that these rocket scientists were at Caltech in Pasadena. And they would go into the back canyons and just shoot off missiles. Well, the neighbors started to get nervous about these explosions happening. And also, there were a couple accidents at the lab - explosions. And so they decided, well, we better go out. And they just loaded up some missiles in the back of a truck and drove out into the desert looking for a place to blow them up. And that's how the idea got started. And then eventually, they took a plane and just flew over the desert looking for big, empty places until somebody said, there it is. I want it.

GROSS: Describe the work that your parents did.

PIPER: My dad was a aerodynamicist on the Sidewinder missile. And my mom was a computer scientist. She worked on the circuitry for the Tomahawk missile mainly but also other missiles.

GROSS: So your father analyzed the pitch and roll of the weapons. What does that mean?

PIPER: Roll is when a missile starts to spin. A pitch is when it pitches up or down. They can actually turn right around and, like, hit the pilot if they pitch. And so he used to explain those things to me as a kid. And I was kind of fascinated by that, although I don't think I really understood what - you know, that these were missiles or what missiles were at the time.

GROSS: So he was like the smart part of the smart weapon.

PIPER: Yeah. Well, the smart part would be more the brains in the missiles, so what tells the missile to locate a target. So for the Sidewinder, it's, like, infrared radiation. It can pick up the heat of a plane's tail pipe. And so that's what makes it smart. And then once it picks up that target, my dad has to, like, be sure it stays on its path until it hits that target.

GROSS: And your mother eventually prepared the simulation programs and test plans for your father to follow on his pitch and roll evaluations.

PIPER: Well, there is something I didn't - I mean, I only learned a few years back. I had no idea until I found my mother's secret notes and read them. So it still amazes me to think about that because I thought their work was, like, completely separate growing up.

GROSS: This is how secretive your family had to be.

PIPER: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) So it sounds like it would have been a very frightening place to grow up in as a child because, after all, missiles were being tested there, not just designed. So there's a short reading I want you to do from your book that describes what it was like, like, how frightening it was to be on the test site.

PIPER: (Reading) There were so many things to be frightened of at night - jets crashing on you, bombs accidentally landing on your house. Sometimes parachuters suddenly fell from the sky or a man flew by in an ejection test seat. It seemed like there was a daily invasion going on. China Lake's newspaper, the Rocketeer, had a cartoon one day about a low-flying jet snagging a highway sign, followed by the pilot getting chewed out by his captain in the next cartoon window. The week after the cartoon came out, my mom said, while holding the Rocketeer, listen to this; someone complained about the cartoon, saying it brought back memories of the time he saw a jet 3 feet off the ground in the rearview mirror of his truck. It was headed right for him but suddenly veered up, barely missing him.

GROSS: So what was it like for you growing up in that environment? How frightened were you?

PIPER: It's complicated because I would say I wasn't really frightened on the surface. It was like a subliminal thing. So you see explosions going off across the street. You hear these jets flying overhead. And you want to know what they are. And your parents don't really have the answers for you. And I think what you do is just repress it, or you have a euphemism about it. Like, my mom would say, oh, they're just exercising, you know? And I'm like, well, what does that mean? But there wasn't really an explanation. Because of that repression, though, I started, like, having panic attacks after we moved to the base, so it manifested itself in other ways.

GROSS: How often did you see something especially peculiar, like somebody parachuting from the sky or somebody flying by in an ejection seat?

PIPER: Oh, that was something that was very - that was pretty rare. What was common was just the low-flying jets all the time, and the sonic booms rattling the windows was just - drove me crazy as a kid. And then the - there'd be explosions, black smoke on the horizon, quite often, too.

GROSS: What was your understanding of war and how the missiles that your parents helped design could be used or were being used?

PIPER: That's the huge question in the book. And for me, I think I started writing the book because I didn't really understand how war connected to my life growing up. You know, there's these weapons of war that's the industry of the base. But I never really heard about them being connected to actual wars, if that makes sense, except, you know, briefly about Vietnam. But I didn't understand what that was all about at the time. So when I started writing the book, I just wanted to dig into, like, well, what wars were these weapons used in? And what were these wars about? And I just kind of kept going and going. But I think on the base, my feeling was that people didn't really talk about that so much.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break. There's plenty more to talk about. If you're just joining us, my guest is Karen Piper. And she's the author of the new book "A Girl's Guide To Missiles." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Karen Piper. Her new memoir, "A Girl's Guide To Missiles," is about growing up in the Mojave Desert on the secretive China Lake Naval Weapons Center and Test Site where her father worked on the design of the Sidewinder missile and her mother on the Tomahawk missile.

So when you and your family moved to this desert-based missile design and test site, the Vietnam War was still under way.

PIPER: Yes.

GROSS: And the missile your father was working on, the Sidewinder, was one of the primary weapons...

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In Vietnam that we were using there.

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Did your father talk about the war in Vietnam?

PIPER: The only thing I really knew about Vietnam was what I saw on TV. But they - my parents would really limit what we watched on TV, so not much. But I knew - I remembered that when this issue with Cambodia came up and that we were bombing Cambodia instead of Vietnam, that my dad got upset because he didn't want to think that Nixon would've done a bad thing. Like, it was illegal to bomb Cambodia. So he said that, oh, this is just how war is; it's messy; you know, people go astray all the time; it was probably just a mistake. And so he was sort of rationalizing for Nixon. That's what I remember most about Vietnam.

GROSS: But then he found out, as everybody else did, that this was secret bombing. It was intentional...

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Secret bombing that was kept from the American public. And apparently, it was kept from the missile designers as well. So what was his reaction when he found out the truth?

PIPER: He didn't really say. But I think that - my dad didn't talk much, so I was always looking for clues as to what he was thinking or what was going on. Watergate was just a mystery to me as a kid. But I remember that when the tapes came out, the Watergate tapes, that Nixon was swearing on them. And my parents, I remember they thought that was horrible, and that was what really changed their mind about Nixon - was that he wasn't the person that he was pretending to be when he spoke publicly.

GROSS: Because your parents were Christian.

PIPER: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: And they took that really seriously.

PIPER: Yeah, yeah. And then the other thing from Vietnam was my dad was tense. And over time, I gradually learned that it was because he was afraid the Sidewinder wasn't working as it was supposed to. And it turned out that in Vietnam, the Sidewinder had a terrible success rate, and the pilots who were using them were upset about them. And they didn't put guns on the planes, so they couldn't - didn't have any backup weapons, so some pilots just refused to use them. So I imagine that affected my dad somehow subliminally.

GROSS: Well, yeah. You say it had - the Sidewinder had only a 16 percent accuracy rate in Vietnam. That is really low when you're talking about a missile.

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: When you think of all the missiles that struck places and people that weren't really targets, that's - it's very upsetting. And your father was involved...

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...With the targeting. So...

PIPER: Yes. He wanted those missiles to hit their targets. And - yeah. They weren't.

GROSS: Yeah. But you found out that there was a cover-up...

PIPER: That was...

GROSS: ...When it came to the accuracy of the missiles.

PIPER: Yeah. That - and that was later. But that was - and I feel very lucky that my dad let that secret slip with me because he didn't tell anyone else in the family. And he only told me once. When we were on a walk to Albertsons, he said, they're faking the tests at work. And I had no clue what that meant, but he explained they're making it look like the missiles work when they don't. And I was like, well, how could they do that? And he said, well, they can edit the tapes. And I would say, well, why would they do that? And he said, so they can sell them.

And it was the contractors that wanted this, the people like Lockheed Martin who really just wanted to sell missiles and get them out fast and in the field as soon as they could. And eventually, I found out that this was, like, a wider corruption problem that there was a - the assistant secretary of the Navy, Melvyn Paisley, was taking kickbacks from contractors in order to give them weapons contracts, and he was telling people to fake the tests. And he ended up going to jail for it. But the weapons contractors were really barely punished, which I think is really sad.

GROSS: So your father knew that test results were being falsified to make the missiles look better than they really were. Did he feel there was anybody he could talk to about this at work?

PIPER: My dad was a very humble person and a little insecure. I think he always - he just saw himself as a lowly engineer, and this is something the guys above him want to do, and there's nothing he can do about it. So I don't think he would be the type to confront anybody about that.

GROSS: Do you think...

PIPER: But...

GROSS: Yeah.

PIPER: There was any other person on base who did confront his bosses about that, and he got fired.

GROSS: So the period of the falsified test results, was that a period of the Sidewinder when your father was still working on the Sidewinder?

PIPER: Yes, yes.

GROSS: And was that in the Vietnam era?

PIPER: No. That was in the '80s. I'm - although, I'm not sure how far back it went. But the problems with the Sidewinder in the Vietnam era were due to the fact that they couldn't function. Sidewinders couldn't really function in hazy weather or rainy weather. And so there's a lot of haze and rain in Vietnam, and so they couldn't use it. And the Vietnamese - North Vietnamese figured out quickly just to attack when it's, like, raining because the Sidewinder, if it was hazy, it would get attracted to the sunlight reflecting off the clouds.

GROSS: Because it was heat-seeking.

PIPER: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: I can't help but wonder, you know, how all of this made your father feel.

PIPER: I think he felt guilty, like, personally that it was his fault when it really wasn't, if that makes sense. I don't think he felt guilty that he didn't say anything. I think he felt guilty, like, he wasn't doing a good enough job to make the Sidewinder work and that this would kill innocent people.

GROSS: And I know you didn't see much Vietnam war footage on TV because you weren't allowed to watch a lot of TV.

PIPER: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And I imagine that's in part because you came from a devout Christian family, and they probably didn't want you exposed to it. But was also - was it also that they didn't want you seeing the results of the missiles and other weapons that were being worked on in your home, you know, at the base where you live?

PIPER: I don't think so. But I don't know. I mean, there always seemed like such a big disconnect between home and wars that's really hard to explain. So at the time, I didn't associate Vietnam with any of the weapons we were making. Now, they may have in their minds, but they didn't tell me, so...

GROSS: Yeah. I'm thinking how far removed you were from everything...

PIPER: Yeah, exactly. It's like a...

GROSS: ...In the middle of a desert, let alone from the war in Vietnam. What a strange phenomenon. In a way, that's probably what makes it easier for people to design weapons - you know, being disconnected from their actual use.

PIPER: Yeah, yeah. It's a little microcosm. It's its own little culture that seems far removed. I mean - and that's - it was designed to be that way, to be secret. So you do feel very disconnected from war. And that's why - and I think it makes it easier for people to make weapons if they don't feel connected to the results of those weapons.

GROSS: Your father used to work at Boeing in the space industry. He was an aeronautics engineer. So how did he end up working on missiles?

PIPER: He got laid off. So - and it was at a time when Boeing was really downsizing. So they laid off 30 percent of the workforce. And he was unemployed for six months. And then he got this job offer at China Lake. And when we drove away, a funny story is there was a billboard that said, will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights? Because everybody - you know, it was a Boeing town back then.

GROSS: And this was after the Apollo space program ended.

PIPER: Yes, the Apollo...

GROSS: And that's why they were laying off so many people.

PIPER: Exactly. The Apollo mission had just ended, and they were putting more money into war. And so my dad was working on the space shuttle at Boeing, and so he got laid off.

GROSS: So when your mother moved out there with you and your sister, which was a few months after your father moved out because your mother had to sell the family home first, she actually did learn about missiles. Her training was in medical technology.

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: So what did she learn at first? What was she taught?

PIPER: She was hired as a math aide. And, you know, the base had a quota for women. And they encouraged women to...

GROSS: Was this a minimal amount or a maximum number of women to hire - the quota?

PIPER: A minimum amount.

GROSS: OK.

PIPER: And so they really wanted more women to work out there. And so they would train them. And so my mom - you know, they had their own classes or they would send them to nearby colleges for classes. And so my mom did a lot of that. She got her computer science degree while she was working at the base. But she started as a math aide and then gradually worked her way up to being a computer scientist with quite a bit of responsibility for all kinds of things.

GROSS: Yeah, you say that math was considered women's work at the base. Why is that?

PIPER: Well, it's interesting. It was considered clerical, you know, that you have, like, a little calculator and that's what, you know, women do, things like that. But then these calculators gradually turned into computers. And so then the women kept doing that job but now on computers. And they were called computresses. And because they learned computers before men did, they ended up actually being able to run a lot more things than the men could, if that makes sense, because the technology all gradually shifted to computers. And so they had a lot of power but not necessarily a salary that reflected that.

GROSS: Or probably a degree of respect...

PIPER: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: ...That reflected that.

PIPER: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is Karen Piper, author of the new memoir "A Girl's Guide To Missiles." After a break, we'll talk more about what scared her as a child - scared her even more than the missiles - the rapture. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review new album by clarinetist Andy Biskin of songs collected by folklorist Alan Lomax. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZUBATTO SYNDICATE'S "SATURN (Z9)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Karen Piper, author of the new memoir "A Girl's Guide To Missiles" about growing up on the secretive China Lake Naval Weapons Center and Test Site in the Mojave Desert. Her father worked on the design of the Sidewinder missile - her mother, on the Tomahawk missile. The family moved to the site in 1971 when Karen was 6. In her teens, she worked as a secretary at the weapons center. Her other books include "The Price Of Thirst: Global Water Inequality And The Coming Chaos." Karen Piper is a professor of literature and geography at the University of Missouri.

So your mother, I think, hardly considered herself a feminist. She thought her job was to follow her husband. That's how she got into this field in the first place. But she was nevertheless an example of how a woman could have a lot of complicated responsibility. You write she designed a laser barcoding program years before anyone had heard of such a thing.

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: So in spite of what she said about, you know, a woman being secondary to a man and everything, was she, like, an inspiration to you watching the work that she did? Although, now I'm thinking her work was so secretive you didn't even know what (laughter) she did.

PIPER: Yeah, not so much the work that she did but just her. She was very fiercely independent, actually, so she always taught me that I didn't need a man and that there's no reason to get married and just get a good education. And that really stuck with me, that I can do anything I want to. I mean, she didn't have very traditional values in that way.

GROSS: But it sounds like she followed traditional values. You know, you write that, in your family, you felt like the de facto head of the family because your father was indecisive, and your mother felt it was her responsibility to follow your father's decisions, so...

PIPER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: They kind of equalized each other out and...

PIPER: Yeah. No, I think it's a contradiction with my mom. I mean, she has these ideas of, like, biblical principles for women. And so I was definitely taught, don't have sex before marriage, essentially. But she also felt like women used to have to get married for financial reasons. And she described her own marriage that way to me once. She said, I couldn't buy a house unless I had a husband; that's what we had to do. And then I think she saw, like, well, now you don't have to do that anymore, so why would you get married? Very pragmatic.

GROSS: Did you ever get married?

PIPER: Yeah, I did. I was more romantic. And I got married in - after I went to graduate school in Eugene, Ore. He was a graduate student in the master's program there in environmental studies like I was. And we were married for five years.

GROSS: Have you been married since then?

PIPER: No. I'm happily single now.

GROSS: So let's talk about the role of church in your life. Your parents were Baptists, and all the churches were off the military site because of separation of church and state. And that's why your family moved off the base into the surrounding - official town part surrounding the base, where everybody who lived there was attached to the base in some way. And you went to a Christian school, where you say you had to pledge allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag and to the Bible.

PIPER: Mmm hmm, the Bible.

GROSS: What were the Christian flag and Bible pledges like?

PIPER: (Laughter) I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's holy word. Let it - oh, man, people who know it will get mad at me that I can't remember. Let it be a light in my heart and something or other. And the Christian flag is, pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the savior for which it stands. One - that's all I can remember.

GROSS: So in your science class, you learned that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, which they didn't. And there were other scientifically not-true things that might sound biblically correct but scientifically untrue that you learned in science class. And I think it's just kind of fascinating that a Christian school for the children of scientists...

PIPER: I know.

GROSS: ...And engineers would be taught this kind of fake science.

PIPER: I know.

GROSS: ...That they'd be science deniers.

PIPER: I know. I know. It's, like, I don't understand it to this day, except that maybe the Baptists offered a very kind of comforting black-and-white view of the world. And I sometimes wondered if - with all the ambiguity surrounding war, if that made life easier. It provided justifications for war, for one thing.

GROSS: Did you learn those justifications in class? Did the teachers realize your parents were designing weapons and that you needed to hear a justification?

PIPER: Yeah. Well, so - that the Communists were evil - that was in my little booklets that I was - they were called Packets of Accelerated Christian Education - that I learned from. It was very anti-Communists. And then, there was some racist stuff about, you know, Africans being heathens, although that wasn't related to war. That was why we need to go have missionaries over there.

GROSS: There was a time when the traveling record breaker came to town to preach about the evils of rock music. Did he literally break records and destroy tapes?

PIPER: Yes. Yeah. And I saw him one time on - there was a YouTube video of him, and I went, oh, my God, that's the guy. But I could never find it again because it just seemed so surreal. It's like, did I imagine this? But, yeah. And my mom's like, oh, yeah. She - when she read my book, she goes, I remember that crystal ball. Yeah, there was that woman with the crystal - because one woman took a crystal ball down the aisle to have it broken, and he couldn't break it. It was too...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PIPER: It was too solid. But, yeah. He would break them, and then he would do backmasking, where you play them backwards so you can hear Satan talking.

GROSS: Did you have any records or tapes that he destroyed?

PIPER: No, because we weren't allowed to have records like that in the house. But the reason I went forward that time was because I had - in fourth grade, I had a little "boyfriend," quote, unquote, where - which meant we, like, held hands walking to school. And I went to his house, and he would play Beatles albums for me.

GROSS: Fast forward or backwards (laughter)?

PIPER: Forward. I didn't know you could do backwards. But I go - you know, there's this church, and they're saying, ooh, the Beatles are evil - you know? - and they're satanic. And so I was like, oh, no. And anyway, I had to go forward and confess everything, and I just cried and cried. But, yeah, he prayed with me, and I was fine.

GROSS: So you grew up surrounded by missiles, but you say the most frightening thing was the rapture.

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell us why.

PIPER: Well, because I - you know, I was a very devout Christian growing up, and there was this thing called the rapture that's going to take people away any day if you're not saved. And I was never quite sure if I was saved because there were all these rules about it. And, like, you had to reach the end of the age of innocence, which is when you don't have to be saved. But nobody told you when it was.

So then it was like, OK, I'm 7. Should I get saved? Is there a time between that ending and not being saved, where something's going to happen? And so I was just convinced the rapture was going to happen, and I'd wake up one day, and everybody would be gone. And I'd be in the time of the tribulation, which is terrible, all alone. So I - yeah. So I had panic attacks about other things, too, besides weapons.

GROSS: You lived in a world of apocalypse.

PIPER: Yeah. Exactly.

GROSS: (Laughter) You know, it's like, wow.

PIPER: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, there's movies about the rapture and the times of tribulations...

GROSS: But, also, you're surrounded by missiles...

PIPER: ...That we had to watch. Yeah.

GROSS: ...And by unexploded ordnance. Like, one of the things you had to learn is like, be careful where you walk because it's a test site, might step on a bomb.

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Or a lizard or a scorpion or tarantula.

PIPER: Yeah. But they were cool. They were my friends. They're pretty easy to avoid.

GROSS: How old were you when you stopped believing in the rapture? And was it a relief to not have to worry about it anymore?

PIPER: Yes. I think what happened first is I stopped believing in hell when I was 9. I got kind of bored in church and - because they always said the same things over and over again, so I would just sit there and read the Bible, and the Bible was actually kind of interesting, and it had really weird stories in it. And I just decided that, you know, you could sort of pick and choose the ones that you want to believe in. And I decided - because that's what Luther was all about. Like, you could interpret the Bible yourself for once, and the pope can't tell you how to read it. So I decided that if God was good, he wouldn't have made a hell; that didn't make any sense, so that must have been some kind of mistake, and therefore, it no longer exists. And so that was the biggest relief. I don't know - the rapture - I'm not sure when I grew out of that. I mean, the rest of it stuck with me for a while.

GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk some more.

PIPER: OK.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Karen Piper, author of the new memoir, "A Girl's Guide To Missiles." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Karen Piper. Her new memoir, "A Girl's Guide To Missiles," is about growing up in the Mojave Desert on the secretive China Lake naval weapons center and test site where her father worked on the design of the Sidewinder missile and her mother on the Tomahawk missile.

So in 1991, at the start of the Persian Gulf War, after Iraq invaded Kuwait and then the U.S. bombed the Iraqis, you were teaching freshman English at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and you burned an American flag. Did it feel like you were betraying your past and your family to do that?

PIPER: No. No, not at all because after I went to Eugene, I had changed very quickly. I had already been changing in college at Westmont. Like, by then, I was drinking and dancing and doing all the things you're not supposed to do, so I was primed for changing even more dramatically once I got to Eugene. And that was the environment. You know, it was war protests, and that kind of thing were pretty standard there.

And when I burned the American flag - actually, I had the students burn it, which is interesting because I handed a flag to one student, and then I handed a match to another student. I said OK. You can go ahead and burn that, and the student just dropped the match, and said, I'm not going to do that. And so I said, OK, who wants to volunteer? And others - other students were like, I'll do it; I'll do it. They really wanted to.

So I was like, OK. So I had them do that, and then we went back inside, and I had them write about how they felt about it because it's a writing class, and we're supposed to cover, like, controversial topics. And the reason I did that was because burning the flag had just become legal. It had been in the news. And so then when these students - you know, I wouldn't do that now, by the way. But these students went to their parents, of course, and told them what their teacher made them do, and I was called into the chair's office, and he said, you know, I'm not angry at you; I just want to know what you think I should tell these parents that are calling me. And I - he goes, one of them's a lawyer. And I said, oh, well, tell him it's legal.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you regret that you did that?

PIPER: No. No. I don't have the same - I mean, I'm afraid I'm going to get in trouble for saying that, but I don't have any kind of attachment to the flag. It seems like a piece of cloth to me.

GROSS: You've had a pretty adventurous life. For a book on transboundary water disputes, you traveled around the Syrian border, and I think this was maybe before the civil war, but ISIS was still very active in the region. Am I right about that?

PIPER: It was right before ISIS. It was right at the beginning of all that. So right after we left, ISIS was heating up and invading.

GROSS: OK. You've made a lot of trips in various parts of developing countries. You write, you've fallen asleep to the sounds of gunfire, been caught up in riots and revolution...

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That you were used to military checkpoints, landmines, airport closures, and then, during a vacation in Patagonia where you went with your mother and you wanted to get away from all of that, the park, the national park that you were in in Chilean Patagonia was held hostage by protesters who surrounded the exits of the park and blocked it with burning tires to prevent anyone from leaving. The airport shut down. The park was running out of food and gas. And it was a very dangerous situation from which you eventually got out. And you wrote the next time - this was in an essay. You wrote the next time you want to take a vacation, you're going to stay home.

PIPER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...And that you think the days of tourism are over. And I want you to elaborate on that.

PIPER: Oh, geez. I must have written that right after I came back because now I travel all the time again (laughter). Well, I think that the world is getting more dangerous largely because of climate change, actually. There's a lot more migration going on, and that causes conflicts. And so it is really sad that these beautiful places that I've been, like southeast Turkey, that I loved - you know, when I watched that overrun by ISIS and watched Syria - you know being - we're on the border with Syria - and watch it being destroyed on the news, it's really devastating because the people there were just so wonderful.

I mean, the Patagonia thing was a little bit different because the people who "took us hostage," quote, unquote - I liked them. They were nice people. They were very friendly people. It was just that we couldn't leave. And I was worried about my mom's diabetes if they ran out of food. So we ended up - they had put these trucks in the middle of the road, and so we ended up driving up, like, on the side of a little cliff area and - to get around one of these trucks. And my mom was pushing on the car thinking that would keep it from rolling over as I'm trying to sneak by the truck (laughter). And we made it out.

GROSS: It's interesting that you would take a trip like that with your mother. And I think she was with you on the Syrian border, also.

PIPER: Yup. Yup. She wouldn't go to Iraq, though. That's the only place.

GROSS: So you learned a lot about your parents while you were writing your memoir. On the other hand, your mother learned a lot about you from reading the first draft of your memoir. Who do you think was more surprised by what they discovered, you or your mother?

PIPER: My mother definitely because it's a - you know, I grew up in this little microculture that had its own little microculture within it. So there's the base, and then there's the Southern Baptist church and school. And then I go out to the broader world, and it was very overwhelming, but it was so completely different. And Eugene is its own little microculture, so I changed into that, but I never told my mother. I didn't - you know, I was afraid of disappointing her, so I kept - and partly it's a habit or inertia. Every time I went home, I would be the person I am at home. Every time I went to Eugene, I'd be this radical flag burner. And the two - you know, how do you reconcile the two? And I just don't think my mom really knew much about that until she read my memoir a couple years ago. And she stayed up all night reading it, which I knew because I got an email every few minutes all night long about something that was wrong with it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PIPER: And I just thought, OK, well, at least that's over with, you know? Because at the very end, she's like I might not like some of this book, but I still love you.

GROSS: Well, that's good.

PIPER: Yeah.

GROSS: That's very good.

PIPER: And now today she says, oh, it's all good except for the sex part. Why'd you have to put sex in there?

(LAUGHTER)

PIPER: It was, like, any mother would think that, probably.

GROSS: Well, I think, judging from your book, that your mother is a really amazing woman who doesn't realize how amazing she is.

PIPER: Yeah, that's how I see it. Yeah.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been great. Thank you.

PIPER: No, thank you. I have enjoyed it.

GROSS: Karen Piper is the author of the new memoir "A Girl's Guide To Missiles." She's a professor of literature and geography at the University of Missouri. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by clarinetist Andy Biskin of songs collected by folklorist Alan Lomax. This is FRESH AIR.

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