He had planned for a relaxing time, by it seemed Krsna had other plans.
ONE STEAMY late afternoon on the last Saturday of June, it's still too hot for my daily walk, so I decide to drive to a favorite swimming hole. Early summer has brought many days with highs over 90° F, so I figure the water will be pleasantly warm for my little exercise.
Upon arrival at Spring Mill Pond at Island Lake Recreation Area, near Brighton, Michigan, I'm struck by the presence of more than a dozen emergency vehicles at the west end of the sandy beach. I see ambulances, a fire truck, police and sheriff cars and trucks, and a Red Cross van.
"Must be a training exercise," I muse.
But it's no exercise. Other beach visitors tell me that the law enforcement and rescue personnel are here on serious business. A twenty-year-old man, swimming laps in the small pond, has somehow gotten into trouble. When his friends called for help, witnesses at first thought they were horsing around. But he went under around 3:00 P.M. Now a professional search operation is underway, with scuba divers being towed behind a powerboat.
I'm sobered by the methodically grim task I see in front of me. Though a couple of fathers still swim with their small children at the opposite end of the pond, I've lost all desire to swim today. Smasana vairagya?*
*The temporary sense of detachment one feels at a cemetery or place of cremation.
I approach the search operation at the west end of the pond. Yellow police tape reading "POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS" is tied to the cars pulled to the water's edge, forming an area reserved for the rescue workers. A gurney is just behind a medical examiner's van, so I conclude that because of the time he has been under water, the young man is now presumed drowned.
A blonde girl who looks about fourteen is sobbing, and I hear her say something like, "My big brother is never coming back."
I chat with a man around my age about the gloomy scene we have chanced upon. I remark that someone can drown in only a few feet of water. But then I realize that even though that may be true, if one is in shallow water, and has buddies to help, quick rescue and revival is more likely. Falling into deep water makes immediate help much less likely and thus death more certain.
A man sitting on a nearby picnic table is speaking with a couple sunbathing on the sand. I overhear him say, "vegetarianism." We discuss the subject a bit, and I hand him a Sunday Feast invitation card that I always carry in my wallet. As he leaves I ask him to say, as a favor to me, "Hare Krsna," and he readily does.
Maybe I should have mentioned the benefits of offering food to God.
This area was formerly a gravel mining operation, and I walk up a gravelly hill next to the pond to take in the entire scene. A motorboat carrying four men trolls slowly across the surface. About twenty yards behind it, bubbles rise from the scuba divers.
Every few minutes the boat suddenly turns sharply and goes in the opposite direction, and each time that happens I think the divers had found the young man. But they haven't.
Back near the beach I see a tall, slim, young dark-haired man with a shocked expression walk out from the taped-off section to sit on a picnic bench some distance from the rescue workers. As I pass, he looks up at me.
He seems approachable, so I ask, "Your friend has gone under?"
He nods almost imperceptibly.
I reply something like, "Wow, I've swum across this pond many times."
I suppose I'm trying to sympathize with his loss and grief, but I feel that my talk is inappropriate, only irritating him and wasting his time, and I finally conclude with, "I hope it works out for you."
Seconds later while walking away I think, "What a stupid thing I just said! 'I hope it works out.' His friend has obviously just died unexpectedly, on a pleasure outing, and I say, 'I hope it works out.' 'I'm sorry' would have been much, much better."
Maybe I should have just left him alone. I'd first thought that since he'd left the immediate area of the rescue and sat on a picnic table, he was open to conversation, but maybe I was wrong, and I feel like an insensitive and ignorant gawker.
But I'm unable to leave the scene. Part of me is fascinated, perhaps morbidly, by the spectacle; another part hopes to view its conclusion; and another part likes that the normal air of frivolity of the area in high summer loud music, disturbing yelling, and the preening and flirting of adolescents is absent.
I return to my car for my japa beads and Bhagavad-gita As It Is. I manage to chant two rounds while sitting on a picnic table, still watching the operation from a distance. A gorgeous soft golden sun is low in the western sky, casting its reflection on the water. Occasionally, athletic and confident looking young men walk by me on their way to the simple structure housing vending machines and restrooms. They tell me that the water where they're searching is about thirty feet deep, at that depth around 55° F., with visibility about two feet. I talk with one about "the diver's reflex," the ability of a human body to slow its metabolism and heart rate to nearly imperceptible levels while all available blood is directed to keep the brain alive for thirty minutes or longer while submerged in cold water. Ordinarily, a human being will die, or at least suffer massive and irreversible brain damage, if deprived of oxygen for more than about four minutes. But I've read reports of people surviving submersion for up to an hour, and making full recoveries, provided the water is cold enough.
But the young diver today says, "After an hour, it's pretty much a recovery operation."
The young victim, under water for over five hours now, is assumed drowned.
To The Gita
For some reason I turn to some of the Gita's last verses and read, "O King, as I repeatedly recall this wondrous and holy dialogue between Krsna and Arjuna, I take pleasure, being thrilled at every moment." (18.76)
As I write this one week later, I am embarrassed, as it appears that being thrilled at the scene of a tragedy is totally inappropriate. I can understand that a maha-bhagavata (topmost devotee) can be thrilled whatever the circumstances, but I know I'm not on that level.
I wonder if I should have shared my Gita with the young man whose friend had drowned. I occasionally discuss Krsna consciousness with strangers, but it's usually when I'm out chanting on the street with other devotees, or at book tables, festivals, or the temple. Maybe I should have. I'm not used to being around these tragic circumstances.
Another man tells me helicopters were on the scene earlier.
"Med evac?" I ask.
"No, TV news copters."
A Fox 2 TV van arrives, and a young reporter briefly interviews a fireman on camera.
"Does alcohol appear to be a factor?" the reporter asks.
"Not at this time," the fireman answers.
The TV news crew departs.
I overhear a police officer say that they will continue to search until 10:00 P.M.
I walk back to the cordoned-off area to see a pickup truck with a bed-mounted generator noisily filling the divers' air tanks. At one point I count seven divers in the water: Three are resting in shallow water at the far west end, two are tied to ropes held by two men standing on the north shore, and two more are being pulled from the motor boat. Various vehicles have come and gone. The medical examiner's van is no longer at the site. A couple of county pickup trucks are now parked so that the pair of lights on stands in their beds, also powered by portable generators, can illuminate the scene, as the sun has now dropped below tree level. I'm reminded of a motion-picture crew cooperating in a common effort, with lots of vehicles, equipment, and people on location.
About 10:15 a Green Oak township fireman walks toward the group of friends.
"Kelly," he calls out.
I presume that is the sister of the victim, the next of kin present. She and several other young people gather around him, and he talks privately to them. I again hear her sobbing and guess that he has said that the search will soon be halted for the night because of darkness.
Mosquitoes have arrived with the dark. A man and wife astronomer couple is setting up their clock-driven telescopes and offer to share insect repellant with me. The beach is a regular observation spot for the Ford Amateur Astronomy Club. I tell them what has happened, and we then chat a bit about astronomy. A few years back I attended the Island Lake Star Party, the club's all-night open gathering, and various members generously showed me, through their precision systems, some heavenly bodies, such as Jupiter and its moons, the rings of Saturn, and, I think, the Crab Nebula. About ten years ago an employer gave me as a bonus a rather large Dobsonian Reflector telescope, and with it devotee friends and I viewed some of the same objects. But at that Star Party the gazing quickly struck me as inane. Probably everyone there would concede that none of us would ever go to the objects we were peeking at. Each member's equipment must have cost thousands of dollars of their hard-earned money, had taken time and effort to transport to a dark place, haul out, and set up, and what was the gain? So now I've seen the Crab Nebula. So what? Is my life any better, or am I any closer to the truth?
Amateur astronomy's just another unsatisfying hobby in the material world. Like when Markandeya Rsi asked Nara-Narayana to see the illusory potency (Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 12, Chapter 9). "So be it," replied Nara-Narayana, smiling. Then Markandeya found himself in the midst of the four great oceans, along with all the inhabitants of the universe, tormented by harsh winds, lightning, and great waves. My scoping of the heavenly bodies didn't result in anything dramatic, but its futility reminded me of Markandeya's pastime.
With the arrival of darkness, biting bugs, and the end of the day's search, I decide to drive home.
Three days later The Livingston Daily Press Argus reports that rescue teams found the young man's body the next morning.
Return To The Pond
Independence Day. Despite TV weather predictions of a cooler and drier day, I find the weather again stifling hot and humid, and to escape the distressing noise of illegal fireworks in my neighborhood, I return to Spring Mill Pond. Because of the holiday and hot weather, the beach is crowded, but now, five days later, there are no rescue personnel here, just a nearly full parking lot and many people on the beach.
I walk to the area of the rescue operation. Loud, bad music blurts from a boom box. I wade into the water and see all ages enjoying the summer scene sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, strolling on the beach. I'm amazed by the number of people smoking cigarettes. It's bad enough to do that anytime, inhaling carcinogens, tar, and nicotine, to no benefit, but on a hot day? What is wrong with them? What can they be thinking? How can they do that?
"Thanks to smoking's dangerous, edgy, anti-authority image," said Mr. Butts, Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury character in a recent comic strip.
I swim across the short width of the pond. I consider myself a slow but decent swimmer, and for years have wanted to swim across the mile-wide Detroit River near the temple. But today I'm surprised at how sluggish I feel in the water, no doubt because this is only my second swim since last summer. Various devotees have told me that swimming is one of the few Vaisnava sports. Yet in a Prabhupada lecture I'd read last week, he commented:
Just like nowadays people are very fond of diving within the water and swimming. This has become a fashion. So next life they are going to become fish. Yes. Because yam yam vapi smaran bhavam tyajaty ante kalevaram [Bg. 8.6]. If you at the time of death, if you think of that how to swim very nicely within the water that means next life nature will give you a fish life. You get it. That is God's mercy. Why should you artificially try to become a fish? Become actually a fish. That is nature's gift. So you'll get. Yam yam vapi smaran. This is stated in the Bhagavad-gita. Because whatever we practice in our life, so that concept of life, that imagination, continues.
Melbourne, April 22, 1976
Yet I recall other comments by Srila Prabhupada and find them in Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, Volume 5: Let There Be A Temple.
Pancajanya: "Prabhupada said, 'Lord Caitanya used to go swimming all the time. He used to play ball. So you can go and swim. Just make sure you remember Krsna.'"
Nanda-kumara: "Prabhupada said, 'The sun is there Krsna is the light of the sun. The ocean is there Krsna is the taste of water. You are surrounded by Krsna. How can you forget Krsna? He is all around you.'"
So maybe swimming in moderation while remembering Krsna is one thing, but across the Detroit River? Leave it for the fish. And try not to become one.
Krsna states in the Gita (8.6): "Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, O son of Kunti, that state he will attain without fail." I hope the unfortunate young man remembered something transcendental at the critical moment in his short life. My first thought is that that was unlikely, but I don't know for sure.
We never know the spiritual development of those we encounter. I'm a wedding photographer, and at a job in May the wedding disk jockey happened to notice the orange bumper-sticker on the inside of my opened camera case Prabhupada: Your Ever Well-Wisher. He soon approached me to say that he'd been reading the Swami's (I suspect he was unsure how to pronounce "Prabhupada") books since he was about ten years old.
"Really!" I replied. "How did you encounter them?"
"My parents are very religious. Though they're Christians, and raised me as a Christian, they wanted to expose me to as many other religions as possible. They showed me Buddhist literature, Islamic, others. The Swami's books are most thought-provoking."
I tell him that no doubt in his previous life he cultivated spiritual life, and thus took birth in a pious family.
He'd never been to a Krsna temple, so I gave him a Sunday Feast card.
"None of my friends are interested in this stuff," he added. "Nobody. Just me."
"I know what you mean," I replied. "The Gita [7.3] says that of many thousands of men, only one may endeavor for perfection."
He now seemed a bit stunned by our conversation, at a loss for words, so I wondered if I'd said the right things. Maybe he was just nonplussed to finally encounter someone who could discuss Prabhupada's books, and needed time to digest it.
So at a wedding, what appeared to be a twenty-five-year-old ordinary American disk jockey notices my Prabhupada bumper-sticker and tells me he's read Prabhupada's books. We never know whom we'll meet.
At Spring Mill Pond I hear a helicopter in the distance. As it flies into view, thumping overhead, I see that it's blue and yellow: a med evac from the University of Michigan. I look around, but no one else seems to pay it the slightest attention.
Bob Roberts first met Hare Krsna devotees at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1969. In 1986 he began regularly attending the Detroit temple for the Sunday Feast and occasional festivals. He is a free-lance photographer and resides in Commerce Township, Michigan.