Near the Trinity site in central New Mexico, there is an empty place in a forgotten canyon. A wash comes down from steep, sandy hills and at the bottom there is an old dry river bed, a tangle of barbed wire and a pile of rubble. It was a house once, a small one, one of the last homesteads parceled out by the Stock Raising Act of 1916. A couple lived there until the late 1940s. Their name was Ratliff.
I drove out to search for that empty place. The first time I looked for it, I could not find it down the narrow dirt roads and among the unfamiliar geography of the canyon. But the second time, armed with an old map from the Atomic Energy Commission, I went slowly, checking the ridges of the canyon walls and the sloping arroyos that carved troughs between them against the undulating lines on a topographic map. And then I found it.
I walked among the rubble, shifting stones from a collapsed wall, poking among the litter on the earth. There was broken glass, rusted motor oil cans, half of a door: the remains of lives disappearing into the desert.
I came here to explore an absence. As I enter middle age, I find that there are many absences in my life. People who are gone. Places that, once important, have changed to mean nothing to me. A forest in Houston, mowed down and filled with houses; friends who disappeared from my life; a sister that I do not speak to; my father, who died in bed on a Friday morning in April. Holes in the fabric of my understanding of the world.
These absences ache, and the world is full of them, for everyone. We hurtle along the knife-edge of the present above an endless chasm of all that is no more. I want to believe that the things and people that are gone meant something.
The absences in this canyon, the weathered wood and the rusting cans, are not mine. But I know they were important.
On July 15, 1945, the house still stood. An adobe dwelling with only two rooms, a pen for livestock behind it and an outhouse. An elderly couple lived there, Monroe and Minnie Ratliff, as they had since at least 1940. Their 12-year-old grandson was visiting for the summer. They had a few cows, a number of dogs, and goats.
Their lives were quiet. Monroe and Minnie had seven children, but they were all gone now, departed for various points in the Southwest: California, Texas, other parts of New Mexico. Their grandson’s visit was probably a welcome diversion from the silence of the canyon.
It was a Sunday. The Ratliffs were religious, so it is likely that they spent the day at rest, even though they probably didn’t make the 20 mile drive through rough country to the nearest church in Carrizozzo. Monroe, leather-faced and slightly stooped, tended to the cattle and the goats, Minnie, her hair still black but her face furrowed by a life in the sun, fed the dogs. The boy played with the various animals, getting the goat stench all over his hands but it hardly mattered; he hadn’t bathed in weeks anyway and his black hair stuck out in unkempt cowlicks. After the morning chores and breakfast, he ran up into the hills to explore the arid countryside until supper time.
Perhaps they ate vegetables from cans, some smoked and salted meat from the last cull. Maybe squash from the kitchen garden.
Then the sun went down behind the canyon walls and the heavy dark of the New Mexico desert nestled around the house. They did not light their lanterns that night, but went to bed when they could no longer see. The few clouds did little to besmirch the thousands and thousands of stars that shone through the small windows in the thick adobe walls.
In the black of the early morning there was lightning, thunder, and a patter of sudden and forceful rain. The family stirred, wakeful in the storm. The boy sat bolt upright for a moment, his heart racing. But soon he laid down again and stayed that way, until the storm dissipated and his eyes grew heavy again.
At 5:29 a.m., Monroe swung his bare feet from the bed to the floor and rubbed his eyes.
Through the kitchen window, there was a flash and a glow in the sky to the west. At first, he thought it was the sunrise before he realized that it had come from the wrong direction.
I’m reconstructing these moments. The Ratliffs did not write their story down, and they did not leave an oral history of it to their children or grandchildren. All that survives are a few quotes from Monroe in the AEC’s report on Trinity.
But I want to know their story, I want to be there with them when that flash illuminated the sky. In that moment, Monroe saw something that changed the world. I want to be there with him when it happened. Because it changed me, too.
The flash came from a point 20 miles away to the Southwest, a barren stretch of dry valley known as the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of Death. Hours before, scientists, technicians and soldiers from the Manhattan Project had prepared to detonate the world’s first atomic bomb. They had chosen the place because it was wide and flat, close enough to Los Alamos that it could be reached within a few hours’ drive, and nearly empty of any human population. The closest towns with more than a dozen or so residents were Socorro, 51 miles to the northwest, and Carrizozo, nestled in the mountains 50 miles to the east. Other than that, only a few ranchers had homes in the area. Army intelligence agents compiled a list and map of all known persons within a 40 mile radius of the site in case the test explosion wound up releasing enough radiation into the area that it would be necessary to evacuate.
A 100 foot steel tower dominated the staging ground where the test would take place. At its top, a metal shed housed a device the scientists called “the Gadget”: a six-foot diameter steel ball, looped and crisscrossed with cables and wires that connected to explosive charges in its interior. At its heart, a 13 pound sphere of plutonium awaited the moment when its compression would trigger a fission explosion.
Among the bustle of scientists and soldiers was Dr. Louis Hempelmann, a 31-year old MD with a thick jawline and a high, bony forehead. He had been recruited to the Manhattan Project due to his early experiments with radiation therapy conducted in Berkeley; his job in Los Alamos was to determine the harmful effects of plutonium upon the human body, and thus he was a natural choice to lead a team who would determine whether fallout–the cloud of radioactive dust and ash which would then rain back down to ground level after the Gadget’s detonation–would necessitate medical intervention among the nearby population. A few hours after the test, when the risk of their own exposure was sufficiently low as to keep them from immediate danger, he and five other men on the medical team would take readings at several predetermined points to judge the severity of the effects.
The forecast for July 16th had indicated that the weather would be as close to optimal as possible. However, in the dark hours after midnight, distant thunderstorms worried the project leaders, causing the test to be delayed by an hour, before the clouds dissipated.
At 5:29 am, J. Robert Oppenheimer gave the signal and detonated the Gadget. A blaze of searing light erupted in purple, then green, then white, as the core of the explosion reached temperatures 10,000 times hotter than the surface of the sun; a rumble of man-made thunder, echoed by the nearby hills, reverberated and echoed and reverberated and echoed for what seemed like an endless amount of time. The mushroom cloud from the explosion undulated 38,000 feet upward flickering like fire and lightning. The broken earth beneath melted and hardened into green glass.
At 5:45 a.m., a crew of enlisted men at a position 20 miles northeast from ground zero saw the fallout cloud rising from the Trinity site. 90 minutes after that, a white, ashy powder fell upon their station as the cloud passed overhead. The soldiers were cooking steaks over an open fire, but as the powder began to fall, chemist John Magee shouted for them to put the fires out and bury the meat. The men grumbled, but obeyed.
At 9:40 a.m., Frederic de Hoffman, one of Hempelmann’s monitors, arrived at the station to track the path of the fallout with a Geiger counter. Following a thin dirt road east from the station, he came to a gorge leading into Chupadera Mesa. His counter chattered, then unleashed a barrage of pops, signaling that the area was unusually “hot” with radiation. Hoffman estimated that the level of gamma radiation (in the “vicinity of 20” rems per hour) approached 90% of human tolerance, and was by far the highest recorded outside of the ground zero site itself. Since the earlier surveys of human habitation in the area indicated that the canyon was empty of settlement, Hoffman weighed his options and, realizing that entering it would endanger his own health, wheeled his jeep around and drove back to base.
The fire was blazing in the cast iron stove as Monroe poured himself a cup of coffee from the dented percolator. He drank it down quickly, then pulled on his boots while Minnie cooked breakfast and his grandson stirred among the blankets. With the smell of bacon thick in the air, Monroe opened the wooden door and stepped outside into the cool morning.
At first, he thought it had snowed. A fine white powder covered the ground around the house, a few flakes blowing in the soft breeze. He took two more steps and reached down to touch the powder. It was warm and crumbled at his touch.
And then what? Perhaps he returned inside, instructing his family to remain indoors for the rest of the day. Or maybe he pragmatically went and fed the animals in their pens first, before seeing that some had burn marks on their coats.
What is more fleeting than an explosion? A fireball rising up into the clouds like a second sun, roiling and boiling with searing heat. The men of the Manhattan Project watched it through their nearly black glasses, every one of them holding his breath as the fire ravaged across the sky. And then it was gone.
But it was hardly done. The rumble from that blast leveled two cities, precipitated another 2,053 detonations over the next 50 years, simultaneously built tensions and prevented war between two world superpowers, consolidated unprecedented power in the hands of the American President, created a new and constant source of fear for all the people of the earth, and built the world we now live in.
I imagine that moment, over and over. Maybe we all should. Close your eyes and watch the first nuclear explosion and shudder to think how it shaped your life.
Or maybe you think I’m being overdramatic. But this moment holds such power for me personally that I think about it constantly. If it hadn’t happened, my grandparents would never have come to New Mexico to be a part of the Los Alamos National Labs in the 1950s. My father would not have gone to the University of New Mexico, and he would not have met my mother. And there it is, my existence snuffed out. I would never come into being, alongside a multitude of others–when their families did not move across the country to Los Alamos or Oakridge or Hanover or any number of other defense contractors who were given life by the nuclear age and the cold war; whose grandfathers did not return from an escalated war in the pacific, or Korea where the threat of nuclear bombing dictated the strategy of both sides, or a multitude of hypothetical conflicts that may or may not have erupted in the wake of non-nuclear versions of the USA and the USSR.
Everything, everywhere, all of us. Affected forever by this blast in the desert that lasted 2 minutes, that scintillated from golden to purple to green to red in seconds, and then went dark, leaving smoke and ash and radiation behind.
The Ratliffs, then, were the first of us– civilians not directly involved in the Manhattan Project that felt its power. Although they did not know it. And although hardly anyone knows them.
The day after Trinity, Dr. Louis Hempelmann with his lantern jaw and Geiger counter returned to take readings in the areas de Hoffman had not entered. He and his team drove into the canyon, following it for about a mile. Then Hemplemann ordered the jeep to stop. Just in front of them, they were surprised to see, was an adobe house. Here, of all places, in the single most radioactive spot other than ground zero. Two dogs barked nearby.
Hempelmann exited the jeep and strode purposefully up to the small house. He knocked at the door and an elderly couple answered. The face of a young boy peered at him from the shadowy interior.
Hempelmann was shocked, though he didn’t show it. Prior to the explosion, the scientists had taken note of every habitation in the area and removed the handful of people whose ranch