top of page

Breath & Shadow

Summer 2010 - Vol. 7, Issue 3

"The Day I Drowned At Tin Can Beach"

written by

Paula Apodaca

I shouldn’t be telling you this. I don’t mean it’s a secret, I just mean, I shouldn’t even be 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.


Mama’s 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 cushioned--unless 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 Beach.


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.


On 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.


I 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.


But that 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 homes.


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 delightful surroundings.


All traces of that day and that place have vanished over time. The only place it still lives is within me.

Paula 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 she’s 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 about the prevalence of the disorder known, people need to make themselves seen as well.


Paula 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.

bottom of page