My father was something of an expert in spectacular embarrassment when I was growing up. This is my favorite story, one that my brothers and I still laugh about during holiday times like this.
When I was about 12, I went to Sacramento to compete in the California state finals for the National Geography Bee, sponsored by National Geographic magazine. (It's like a spelling bee, except they quiz you on bodies of water, capital cities and so on.) Everyone decided to come along to support me and make it one of a very few Adomian family vacations, so my parents and three brothers all piled into a rental car and headed north, fighting continuously as we drove up the length of the 5 Freeway.
Once we got to Sacramento, it was decided that we would go eat dinner in historic Old Town Sacramento, much of which is built below ground. This peculiar local style dates back to the founding of the gold rush town, when the early settlers had the civic wisdom to engineer a gimmick for a future tourist trap.
We passed a few "Old West"-style shops and bars along a main sidewalk and came up to an entryway that looked like a good place for dinner. There was a stairway leading down to an underground pizza parlor. My dad went downstairs to look at the menu and find a bathroom for Daniel, my second-youngest brother who was seven years old at the time. The rest of us stayed up on the sidewalk.
What happened right then in the next few seconds felt like an hour. Suddenly, a deep roar shook the entire restaurant.
"SHIT! EVERYBODY DOWN!"
The bellow. It was dad's unmistakeable bellow. The rest of us up on the sidewalk knew immediately that dad was involved in some kind of incident. We heard a wave of panic rise up from the dinner patrons below.
"What's going on? What's going on?" my mom asked, instinctively scooping my baby brother up from his stroller.
My brother David and I ran down the stairs far enough to see people ducking for cover, screaming. Dad was belly-crawling across the floor, as if under fire.
"Dad's bellying across the floor!" came my adrenaline-fueled report back up to mom.
"Oh god oh god oh god oh god," she replied.
Then dad swung behind a large table where a full dinner party were seated, all of them now crouching in total panic. Dad turned the table over on its side, sending their drinks, silverware and several large pizzas sliding off onto the floor. He ordered everyone to get behind the barricade.
"Now he's turning over the tables!"
"Oh god oh god oh god oh god."
I spotted young Daniel standing stunned in the middle of the restaurant. My dad lunged out from a prone position and tackled him, shielding him from danger.
"I SAID GET DOWN GOD DAMN IT!"
The restaurant was full with at least fifty people who were now on the floor, yelling and sobbing and praying. Dad turned another table over, strengthening his barricade.
Then, from behind the kitchen, a waiter leaned out, extending his entire torso across the counter, waving wildly and trying to get dad's attention.
"Sir! Sir! Sir! It's a dinner theatre next door, sir! It's a dinner theatre next door!"
The screaming died down, giving way to angry silence as everyone heard those words sink in.
"It's a dinner theatre next door, folks."
It turned out that in looking for a bathroom, dad had turned a corner, opened the wrong door and seen some actors acting out a gunfight at an adjoining murder mystery dinner theatre. (To this day, Daniel says that he, at age 7, could clearly see and hear that the weapons were cap guns.)
All eyes turned to my dad as he slowly stood up, dusting himself off. He helped Daniel get up and then addressed the crowd in a tone of magnanimous apology.
"I'm from Los Angeles," he explained. "We just had riots."
We ate dinner somewhere else that night.