Ganesh is the Hindu god responsible for controlling life obstacles and providing wisdom. His image, popular and unmistakable, is characterized by the head of an elephant.
The annual celebration, featuring brightly colored figurines of this god (ranging in size from mere inches to 70 feet in height), can be seen all over the world, generally falling in the time period between August and September.
Near the conclusion of the festivities the figurines are immersed in water. Many years ago they were made of clay, and the materials the idol was made of returned to earth without damaging the environment; however, that is no longer usually the case (they are often made of plaster now).
I was a witness to the vast number of people who turned out for this year’s celebration on the Georgia coast, faces painted with red, large groups of men carrying massive idols on bases, making their way through the sand and headed toward a predetermined spot on South Tybee Island. Throngs of men, women, children; families dressed in a variety of colors, pouring their way toward a spot of worship. There were literally hundreds who passed the house where we were.
We had planned to have a family portrait taken out by the shoreline, and it just so happened the place the crowd was headed was exactly where we had planned to shoot the picture. Oh well, we laughed . . . and adjusted our plans; we could find an alternate spot.
We could have no inkling of what was in store that evening, Sunday, September 27, 2015.
We made our way to the edge of the rising tide, north and east of the large throng of people who had gathered. We had to be photogenic quickly, because the tide was moving in, encroaching on about three feet of shoreline with each wash of the waves. My four-year-old grandson was in and out of the water, but managed some great pictures. My almost-one-year-old granddaughter stayed in her father’s arms; the rest of us did our best to look good, but the strong wind was wreaking havoc on our adult coiffures.
After having to relocate the tripod and other photographic paraphernalia several times to avoid the rising tide . . . we were finally done. But as we milled about, enjoying the last bits of evening before returning indoors, the intoxicating cadence of the waves was interrupted by sirens. Soon lifeguards zoomed past with vehicle light bars lit, heading for the spot where the Hindu ceremony was being held.
In just moments two vehicles returned the way they had come; we saw two lifeless men in the back (one in each vehicle) with lifeguards performing CPR as they sped past us. Police began to appear, and soon the Coast Guard employed a rescue helicopter to search for what was clearly a missing person or persons in the water. Rescue efforts were being made with the use of kayaks and and jet skis as well.
We were witnessing the truth of the South Tybee warnings about rip currents in that exact area. It appears that five persons had been swept away in the channel between the shore and the sandbar near Little Tybee. Four were taken to the hospital, two survived. A fifth was missing, and the search continued until just after 10:00 AM on Tuesday, Sept. 29, when the body was found. The deceased Indian men were ages 36, 39, and 41 according to news reports.
Water weighs 65 pounds per cubic foot, a sizable amount. And a rip current utilizes that weight to move objects even in shallow water. You cannot defeat it; rather, you must swim with it or allow it to take you out away from the shore until it releases you. Calmness is important in this scenario, but I am not sure I would be up to it, personally.
In 2013 there were 17 who were swept away in the Yamuna river in New Delhi as they celebrated this same event on Indian soil. What a tragedy.
I have an iPhone picture of the Hindu men unloading two large idols of the elephant god off a red truck and trailer just below the house where we were staying. We watched as they struggled to lift the objects of devotion and maneuvered their way up, then down the wooden boardwalk and across the sand, preceded and followed by throngs of worshipers.
There was a festive spirit in the air, a contagious joy. Nothing could have prepared them for the darkness that was coming.
Life is precious.
As my son-in-law said to me later that evening, human beings are unbelievably resilient and amazingly fragile at the same time. How true that is.
Our devastation that night was like a pall cast over us. Of course, nothing to compare with the families of those lost that day. But that is their story. We were left with our own story.
And our story moved on the next day to: watching a man right beside us catch a small shark (about 4 feet long) with a fishing rod, bring it up in a fishing net, and release it from the pier; an interesting, interactive, kid-friendly, sea life museum; the wonderful Georgia State Railroad Museum in downtown Savannah; Chik-fil-a lunch-on-the-run; and then a longer-than-necessary ride back home (that story is for another time).
We are tired from our weekend trip, but back home. Nothing earth-shattering has been altered in our lives. I cannot say that for the families of the victims of that accident on South Tybee Island. We may all remember September 2015 at Tybee Island. But not with the same intensity.
Nevertheless, I am left with a feeling . . . one that remains quite deep in me . . . a realization that my life intersected with the lives of persons I may never meet again, in a place I may never see again; the intersection was brief . . . but monumental.
My wife said she saw a young boy, about ten years old, with tears in his eyes, and his father asked him what was wrong. He said, “Are they gonna be all right?” His father responded, “You don’t have to cry. They’re all going to be all right. But that’s why I don’t want you going out too deep into the water . . . .”
They were not all right, of course.
Each of us has an “end” to face. For some it may come in their sleep and without pain. For others it may come at the conclusion of a long, pain-filled bout with some disease. Still others may come to a sudden, dramatic, tragic end. But rest assured – there will be an end.
One day some blogger may sit and write about my final moments. He or she may say, “I didn’t know him, but it was a terrible . . . .” Or they just might write about you.
No matter. The intersections will occur again and again. Persons unknown to you will be present right along with family when you pass, most likely. The intersection will happen. Some will notice it. Others may not.
I choose to notice it. I cannot escape it.