By Joshua Wheeler (Text) and Reto Sterchi (Photos), 16.10.2021
Hundreds of twinkling lights, five hundred brown paper sacks with candles in them, luminarias around the mound and spilling out into the base paths and a family of three with singing bowls on the infield grass, the biggest singing bowls I’ve ever seen, like singing buckets between their legs and them dragging mallets along the glass rims to make the air drone, for hours the air drones as one by one the luminarias are extinguished by roving figures in the dark. And when another wisp of smoke from a smothered wick dissipates, then we are done remembering, for this year, one more victim of the Gadget, the Manhattan Project’s crowning achievement at Trinity, the world’s first atomic explosion on July 16, 1945, right here in Southern New Mexico.
Up in the press box a trio of announcers takes turns reading pages of names of all the people in the Tularosa Basin who have died of cancer caused, they say, by radioactive fallout from the first breath of the atomic age. For hours, name after name like the slow grind of a macabre graduation ceremony. So then this is how the Gadget’s blast fades: after a flash of heat ten thousand times hotter than the surface of the sun, after a blast reverberating windows for a hundred miles, after lifting as much as 230 tons of radioactive sand mixed with ash into a mushroom cloud over seven miles high, after seven decades. And still the blast echoes here at the baseball field as another name is called and another flame extinguished in remembrance of someone dead from cancer caused, they say, by the world’s first atomic bomb.
Nothing but a goddamn gadget.
Just toying with the nauseous joy of physics.
Henry Herrera sits up in his lawn chair next to the bleachers and says, “the thing went off and the fire went up and the cloud rose and the bottom half went up that way.” He gestures over my head toward first base. “But then the top part, the mushroom top started coming back this way and fell all over everything.” He waves both his arms back toward us and all around us, big swoops of old, thin, and crooked arms over his head like he might be able to accurately pantomime an atomic blast or like he’s invoking its spirit or just inviting the fireball to rain down again so the rest of us can really understand.
Henry’s sort of a celebrity in this crowd, one of a handful of folks around Tularosa still living who actually witnessed the Gadget’s blast, a guy who’s beat cancer three times already and says he’ll lick it again if he gets the chance. I’ve heard him repeat his story, word for word, to anyone who will listen, for years now. He sits next to me, fiddling with the pearl snaps on his Western shirt, petting his white hair down in back behind his big ears, telling the tale in spurts, little stanzas between long gaps of pondering, those rests of silent reflection that never stop growing as we age, like ears, like I guess all our really old storytellers have big ears and the will to ride a lull for as long as it takes until an aphorism or anecdote has marinated on the tongue and is ready to serve. He serves one up: “I’ll bet ten dollars to a donut your momma never blamed you for the atomic bomb.”
Nobody ever thought much of a bomb going off because bombs were always going off over at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range since our Second World War began, but this explosion was different.
“It was huge and after a few minutes comes this little filmy dust,” Henry says. “Fine dark ash just came down and landed all over everything. Momma’s clothes hanging out there turned nearly black, so she had to wash them over again. You talk about a mad Mexican.” He laughs at the thought of his momma’s face, seeing all her whites turned to grays, screaming, “what the hell did you explode out here, Henry?”
So that’s the story of how Henry’s momma tried to blame him for the atomic bomb.
“It’s funny until you know we was drinking it and eating and everything else.”
“But we didn’t know that for years.”
“Not really until we started dying.”
Henry intertwines his tale of the Gadget with tales about being in the military 10 years after Trinity, touring Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war because he’d become obsessed with what he’d seen as a kid – “night turned to day, like heaven came down” – and he needed to see also what the Bomb had done to our enemies, and he surely saw it all: the complete devastation, the rubble and ash and shadows stuck to walls and “just imagine all those families,” he says.