Day I Drowned at Tin Can Beach
I shouldn’t be telling you
don’t mean it’s a secret, I just mean, I shouldn’t
here. The summer after I turned five, I drowned in the ocean and was
saved by my Uncle Don.
When I was little, summer meant
bundling up towels, blankets, bottles of Sea and Ski, Noxzema, lawn
chairs and telescoping forks, hot dogs, buns, mustard, relish,
marshmallows, pots of chili with mushrooms, and a giant metal tin of
saltines. We never owned a cooler of any kind, so the afternoon
before our seasonal trip, Mama would go from house to house, neighbor
to neighbor, in search of a Coleman’s cooler or a five-gallon
thermos-like thing for lemonade for our trip.
lemonade was good for keeping mosquitoes away when we stayed in the
city. Hot summer evenings outdoors were fun, but the next morning my
sisters and I looked a little like we’d been pin
we managed to spill enough of the sticky beverage on our legs and
arms to keep the bugs away. At the beach, however, lemonade was not a
good choice because instead of keeping bugs away or killing the bugs
that happened to get on you, the sticky drink made sand cling in all
the wrong places. It made life uncomfortable.
Every summer we
begged for Hawaiian Punch. It seemed like a much better choice
because it was pre-mixed. After every vote, we lost, in large part
because lemons were free and readily available, everyone had sugar,
and there was always lots of water from the tap, no matter whose
house you made the lemonade at. Hawaiian Punch, on the other hand,
had to be bought from the market, and at 49 cents a bottle, it was
just too much of an extravagance.
Mama would try to get us
interested in some adventure we could claim for ourselves, like shell
collecting or such. The best was catching sand crabs, and Mama
suggested that we find a suitable tin can on the beach in which to
capture them. No need for individual pails, that way. Besides, we
didn’t have any.
So, like other years, this is how the trip
to Tin Can Beach began. After a week of planning, map reading and
arguing about the best route to take, the cars would be loaded, food
prepared, and trunks packed for the trip. It took a couple of hours
to get from our house in the San Gabriel Valley to Huntington Beach
and then to the best beach itself, just north of the pier--Tin Can
The caravan set out from our house at six in the
morning. We arrived by ten, and were done setting up by noon.
Including aunts, uncles, cousins and spouses, there were about
twenty-five of us.
Mama slathered Sea and Ski all over me and
then told me to play as much as I could under the rented umbrellas.
By late afternoon, my Aunt Fern and her husband, Ward, had their long
bamboo poles out and were casting lines into the surf. Others were
throwing and catching a ball, some were making sand castles, and a
few of us were hunting down tin cans for the sand crab hunt.
the highway side of the beach was a huge berm, an earthen embankment
created in part to scrape away some of the debris and junk on the
beach itself. There, at the foot of the berm, we hunted tin cans.
But, as was the case in 1957, one had to be careful hunting tin cans
because the lids of the cans were sharp as razor blades and jagged as
broken glass. A cut from one could ruin any day at the beach.
found my can early. An old Del Monte Sliced Peaches label still stuck
to it. I also found a metal spoon in the sand left behind by someone
on some other day, so I was equipped and ready to take on the water
and the sand.
I moved from the berm to the edge of the water
and waited for the surf to roll in and out a couple of times. I sat
down on the wet sand and scanned its smoothness for bubbles. I didn't
think I would have much time to hunt for sand crabs because my
shoulders were getting sunburned and the ties of my sun-suit were
beginning to cut into my skin.
I recall digging into the sand,
scooping it with my fingers and feeling for the sand crab. I recall
having about half a can of sand and crabs. Then the tide came in,
knocked me over and all I can recall was a deep blackness and a
claustrophobic nausea that was suddenly shattered by one of my
uncles. I woke up, hanging upside down, midair, my uncle waving my
little body in the wind as if he were trying to dry me off. It was
his version of CPR.
I had been underwater, seizing, and the
tide was pulling me out to sea. My uncle was afraid I’d drowned,
because I was as pale as a ghost and a little bluish around my lips.
He only became relieved when he saw the circulation return and my
lips "pinked up". After he set me down, the world began to
spin and I heaved up seawater and oatmeal all over the sand. Then I
seized again, so they released my sand crabs, packed up their things,
and drove me home.
They didn’t know it back then, but the
early hours, the heat, and even the excitement had all contributed to
antagonizing my epilepsy. I often wonder if the experience repeats
itself when I have a convulsion, because the feelings I have are like
being under water and not being able to breathe. The sensation is
similar to water moving over my face, so that even when I open my
eyes I am still unsure if I am back among the living.
was then. Fifty years later, I have returned to the area to find it
remains with me as a memory that has no real world anchor. The beach
is no longer called Tin Can Beach--it is now Sunset Beach. The tall
berms of tin cans are gone, replaced by beachfront condominiums and
Across the road from the beach, behind the beachfront
properties is a restaurant--Don the Beachcomber, a Pacific
island-themed establishment with good food, strong drinks and
All traces of that day and that place
have vanished over time. The only place it still lives is within me.
Apodaca grew up in a multiple-disability household. Her older sister
was blind and her mother was bipolar. Paula has been a person with
epilepsy for 54 years, but it’s only been since 2002 that
been telling people about it. She writes a blog called—E is for
Epilepsy by Paula Apodaca, and in her time has been a reporter,
free-lancer and stringer for a variety of publications. It is her
strong belief that if conditions for people with epilepsy are to
improve, they must self-identify on a larger scale in order to make
the general public aware. It isn’t enough to make statistics
the prevalence of the disorder known, people need to make themselves
seen as well.
is a graduate student in English at Chapman University in Orange,
California. She is working on a book of short stories on the
experience of having epilepsy.