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 o