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 ranches and homes were deemed to be too close to the danger zone. But somehow the surveyors, who were unfamiliar with the area, had missed the canyon and the Ratliffs.
The Trinity test was still a secret, and even though Monroe told Hempelmann he had seen the flash of light from the
bomb and the white ash falling from the sky, covering the ground like a snow, Dr. Hempelmann would tell them nothing about what had happened or why he was there. He looked the family over, saw that they had no burns, that they were not nauseous and that their hair wasn’t falling out. It seemed that they had escaped the immediate effects from the fallout anyway. Outside, there was still ash on the ground, and some of the animals had singed fur, but the Geiger readings weren’t high enough at that point to show immediate danger. The walls of the adobe were thick enough to absorb most radiation and Hemplemann decided not to evacuate the family. After thanking Monroe for his time, suggesting that he stay indoors for the rest of the day and shaking his hand, he stalked back to his jeep and left.
But the ash continued to fall for three more days. Each morning, the Ratliffs awoke to find that “the ground and the fence posts had the appearance… of being frosted.” Radioactive contamination fell upon their home as rainwater and seeped into the ground that their cattle grazed upon.
Hempelmann ordered several more medical assessments of the Ratliffs during the next two years, but they never moved beyond visual analysis, which is to say a once-over given for sores or visible tumors. Finally, the medical evaluators determined that the Ratliffs had likely not suffered negative effects from the fallout and no later assessments were ordered. However, radiation was poorly understood at that time and Hempelmann and his team were only concerned with the acute effects of radiation poisoning. Today we know that high doses of radiation can cause harm in myriad other ways by raising the probability that a victim will, later in life, experience health problems like cancer, genetic damage, and reproductive problems. This type of harm is known as stochastic effects and can take up to 30 years to appear.
It is certain, then, that the Ratliffs were exposed to elevated risk of
complications from radiation exposure. The question then is why did the government not continue to follow up with the Ratliffs in the years after the Trinity test?
I find it tempting to ascribe this oversight to simple ignorance. Perhaps Hempelmann did not understand the full ramifications of stochastic harm. However, within the next 30 years, the U.S. government had certainly gained a greater understanding of radiation’s long term impact. For instance, following the 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear test in the Marshall Islands, the Atomic Energy Commission devised a medical treatment and monitoring program known as Project 4.1 for the purpose of understanding the short- and long-term effects of radiation exposure to Marshall Islanders who had been caught in the test’s fallout cloud.
The early findings of Project 4.1, which included an increase in birth defects and miscarriages, as well as blood-based changes) convinced the AEC to continue once-yearly medical evaluations of the affected islanders indefinitely. Given that this decision was made only nine years after the Trinity test, it seems strange that there was no similar effort to follow up with the Ratliffs, or other ranchers whose livestock and drinking water may have been exposed to Trinity’s fallout.
If it was not, in fact, due to ignorance, then it is possible that the “oversight” was due to simple expediency. Indeed, the precautionary preparations undertaken by Manhattan Project scientists and staff in the run up to the Trinity test centered around maintaining secrecy, minimizing lawsuit possibilities from members of the general public, and evacuation preparations in case a nearby population center was exposed to unacceptable levels of fallout. Although medical professionals were on the monitoring teams to determine if radiation reached harmful levels, no medical staff was retained for the purpose of administering aid to any potentially affected population, nor were there any plans for long-term monitoring of such individuals. Hymer Friedell, of the Manhattan Engineering District medical office summarized their preparations in a 1987 interview, “The idea was to explode the damned thing . . . we weren’t terribly concerned with the radiation.”
Years later, Louis Hempelmann himself would admit, “A few people were probably overexposed, but they couldn’t prove it, and we couldn’t prove it. So we just assumed we got away with it.”
Sometime in the intervening years between the Trinity test and the present day, the Ratliffs moved on. No further studies of their well-being were done, and the U.S. government appeared to keep no records on their whereabouts after 1946. I spent hours trying to track down their history, but the facts I found were ambiguous and isolated. Monroe and Minnie Ratliff had seven children. Minnie died in Chavez County, NM, in 1986. Monroe’s date and location of death are, according to the Social Security Administration, unknown. Some of their children settled in Flagstaff, Arizona.
So, with only a few mentions in papers regarding the Trinity Test, they fade, back into the desert, their story illuminated for a brief moment in the light of an atomic blast.
But, still, I can’t shake them. It has become important for me to know what happened to the Ratliffs. On some level, I feel like their experience is emblematic of all of ours. They were exposed to something incredible, horrific and beyond their understanding. Something that must have changed their quiet, middle-of-nowhere existence in a thousand ways. Something that may have hurt them.
What happened to them? How did their lives change because of what they saw, and what they were exposed to, on that day in 1945? Did their increased risk of cancer manifest in any actual disease? Or did they live hale and hearty until the end of their days? When did they leave their tiny home in the canyon, and why? Where is their grandson? I don’t know.
I’ve been following their trail, scraps of paper and family trees floating on the Internet; social security numbers and emails to people who share their name, or are descended from someone who did. I want to know them.
There are signs, shallow footprints they left behind. Names on a census form. Birth certificates. Marriage certificates. Death certificates.
I find out that Monroe was born in Avalon, Texas on July 27th, 1887. That Minnie was four years younger, from Allen, Oklahoma. That Monroe had lived the life of an itinerant worker, that the couple had married in Custer County, Oklahoma in 1906, when Monroe was 19 and Minnie 16. That they had lived in a place called Goose Creek Texas, where Monroe worked the wildcat oilfields.
Shallow footprints, but enough to make me feel a brief flicker of kinship. Goose Creek, later absorbed into Baytown, Texas, was only a few miles from my childhood home on the Gulf Coast. I know what summer is like there. I wonder if Monroe hated it as much as I did.
In my research, I’ve found a handful of relatives living in Hobbs, NM. I contacted them and asked about Monroe and Minnie. They had no idea that their family had been involved in this watershed event. They are the children of Lagatha Ratliff, the daughter of Minnie and Monroe. Lagatha died in her twenties, before her children could come to know her well, but they knew of her parents, at least tangentially. They had heard of the homestead in the New Mexico wilderness, which they call “the Goat Ranch.” They had a few pictures that they scanned and sent to me, black and white photographs passed down to them.
One is of Lagatha, posing as though she is dancing in front of the canyon house. Another is of Minnie and a grandson, perhaps the same child who stayed with them on the fateful day, tending to the goats in the pasture behind the ranch.
Other than the photographs and a few brief email interactions, though, they don’t seem interested in talking to me about their family’s role in history. After a few failed attempts at interviewing them, I give up and leave them to their privacy.
At the ruins of the Ratliff house in the quiet canyon, I hold the photograph of Lagatha in my hand. She is young and full faced, her hands are on her hips and she is giving the camera a coquettish smile. Behind her, the old house stands, whole, in place of the rubble that is now before me. A juniper tree is in the foreground, used as a makeshift fencepost for a small front yard.
I lower the photograph from my view, and the juniper tree is still there, looking almost the same as it did over 70 years ago. I walk to it. A strand of wire is wrapped around its trunk, the wood growing over it in places. I touch it, running my hand along the gnarled bark.