April 15, 2009

The Day I Drowned at Tin Can Beach, California


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 had just turned five years old, 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 to borrow 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 always 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 for a beverage because instead of keeping bugs away or killing the bugs that happened to get on you, the sticky drink made sand cling to you 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 who’s house you made the lemonade at. Hawaiian Punch, on the other hand, had to be gotten 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 should 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 south 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 out 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, so a cut from one could ruin any day at the beach.

I found my tin 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 I was already beginning to burn painfully at my shoulders 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 beginning to pull me out to sea. My uncle had been afraid I had 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, and the sensation I have is like water moving over my face, so that even when I open my eyes I am still unsure if I am back among the living.

Perhaps the event imprinted itself on my memory somehow?