Friday, November 14, 2008

Chapter Two

Christmas 1982

Although it occurred two years prior to my birth, I feel as though I had a seat in the front pew of St. Augustine’s First Baptist Church for the Ancient City’s wedding of the century on Christmas Day, 1982. I’ve heard the story a thousand different times from every affected party who took part in the affair, every one of whom remembers that day with an alarming amount of detail and clarity.

Even within the greater realm of St. Augustine folklore, the tale of my parents’ wedding remains as one of the most popular stories passed down through generations of North Florida natives, lagging just behind the tale of Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ founding of the city in 1565 and Ponce De Leon’s great search for the Fountain of Youth.

You see, from the time they first started dating in the spring of 1980 at St. Augustine High School, my parents were labeled as the Romeo and Juliet of the tiny seaside village.

My father, John Andrew “Jack” Hamilton was the youngest son of North Florida’s most revered judicial servant, the honorable Judge Raymond Q. Hamilton III. For centuries, the Hamilton family had been sculpting the history of St. Augustine through politics, justice and the power of an iron fist. People held passionate opinions about the Hamiltons in only one of two directions--adulation or fear. Many people who subscribed to the latter belief felt that the family was a long line of criminals who forced their way into the city’s political landscape.

That’s not an entirely false perspective.

By 1982, Judge was the reigning family patriarch who had already ascended to the highest ranking judicial position in the county. Everyone knew he had plans to move up into the broader spectrum of the district in the following election season, and he was grooming both of his sons--Raymond Q. Hamilton IV and Jack--to follow in his footsteps.

Unfortunately, while Ray IV had agreeably accepted the family business and headed to law school at the University of Florida, Jack had decided to build his own business as a personal act of spite against his father. He barely maintained a “C” average at SAHS and found his love not in politics, but in the dewy grass of an open football field. Judge was somewhat pacified with his son’s athletic prowess (which is a quick path to fame in a small town) right up until Jack decided to continue his athletic career at Florida State.

An ardent Florida Gators booster, fan, and alumnus, Judge would sooner have seen his son walk through town in a dress than a Garnet & Gold uniform. To Judge, it was an embarrassment, a crime, and an act of pure betrayal for Jack to march off to Tallahassee and play football for Bobby Bowden.

But he did it anyway.

To make matters worse, before he left for the capital city he also decided to invite the daughter of the St. Augustine’s most beloved Baptist minister (and Judge’s most outspoken critic) to his senior prom.

Elizabeth Jane Bailey, my mother, played the role of a pastor’s daughter to a tee. To every adult she came in contact with, the shy brunette with the sharp blue eyes was nothing but sweetness and sweaters. Inside the bathroom stalls of SAHS, however, the writing on the stalls indicated that when the sweater came off (as it was known to do on a frequent basis), the sweetness went with it.

Although they would never admit it, those rumors and the combined pain it would cause their fathers were the chief reasons behind the start of my parents’ relationship. No one really knows when it turned from lust to love, but even after Jack went off to Tallahassee, the two continued their ill-fated romance.

My maternal grandfather, Pastor James Bailey, has always told me that every gray hair on his head (and there are a lot of them) sprouted during the two-year courtship of his only child and the son of St. Augustine’s most notoriously corrupt politician.

I believe him.

In fact, I think the majority of those gray hairs were probably born during the last few months leading up to my parents’ Christmas wedding. It was then that the infamous judicial servant and the respected Baptist minister had to put their differences aside to unite for a common cause.

While some people in St. Augustine were encouraged by the sudden softness of the relationship between the two families that followed my parents’ engagement, most folks just saw cause for suspicion. Once that ring went on my mother’s finger, the city should have become a battle ground between the two that would have made the previous entanglements of the French and Spanish in the area pale in comparison.

To add fuel to the conspiracy theorists’ fire, rumors flew around town about the mysterious disappearance of the bride and groom at the end of the summer. Although both had gone up to Tallahassee for school, it would have been common place to see them around town on the weekends or especially during the Thanksgiving holiday. So the fact that no one had caught even the slightest glimpse of the two since Labor Day was somewhat troubling.

With all the gossip slipping through the cobblestone streets, it was no surprise that such a large crowd turned out on Christmas Day for the wedding. Hours before the doors of the church were even opened, people lined up from the steps of the church, down the sidewalks, and deep into the downtown historic district.

According to my Nana Jane (my mother’s mother), there was a last minute effort to find someone to act as a bouncer and check for invitations at the door of the church. Unfortunately, no one was willing to stand up against the masses, and so it was that the large oak doors of the church swung out into the cold December morning and invited everyone in to its warm chapel.

Gorgeous poinsettias, holly boughs and pine wreaths still hung throughout the church from the previous night’s candlelight service. Some of the church ladies in attendance murmured amongst themselves that the bride and groom had taken advantage of the holiday decorations bought with the church’s budget, but none of them dared to say so to the pastor.

While the parishioners, gossip mongers and other interested parties vied for the best seats upstairs, my mother donned her gown inside her father’s basement office. Had it not been for pictures, I would not know what my mother‘s wedding dress looked like. After the events of that day had transpired, not one of the 250 guests could remember a single detail about the handmade gown.

Fortunately, a photographer was on hand to document everything, including the hideous nature of my mother’s dress. Although, at the time, I understand that fancy, beaded bodice work, long sleeves made of lace, and balloon-sized shoulder pads were all the rage, that style does not translate well into modern times. I am forever thankful to my parents’ first dog, Skippy, who had the good sense to shred that dress one afternoon while he was home alone so that I would never be offered the chance to revive its glory.

At any rate, my mother squeezed into her gown with the help of her bridesmaids and stood back to take a long look at herself in the mirror. It wasn’t exactly the glamorous wedding the eighteen year-old reigning prom queen had imagined, but it was her wedding day nonetheless.

Moments before the ceremony began, my grandfather slipped into the room and immediately burst into tears at the sight of his only daughter in her full wedding day regalia. An uninformed bystander would easily have been fooled into thinking that his tears were of joy and nostalgia, when in fact they fell out of shame and embarrassment. Once he stepped into the chapel with his daughter on his arm, my grandfather knew his life would be changed forever.

Back upstairs, someone shoved a bouquet of red roses mixed with holly into the bride’s hand just before the doors swung open into the vestibule and the crowd leapt to its feet.

My other grandmother, Judge’s wife Paula (who refuses to go by Grandma, Granny or any other derivative of the word for fear that it will make her sound old) stood up along with everyone else and tugged her skin-tight red dress down to reveal more cleavage than the Baptist church had ever seen. She held her head high and pasted a bright smile across her red lips which she was prepared to maintain throughout every painful minute of what was about to happen.

Upon her first step into the chapel, my mother was greeted by a chorus of gasps and murmurs echoed by the high arches of the wooden ceiling. The sounds, however, were not related to the beauty of my mother in her white dress or the joy of the moment. Instead, they were actually the product of a watermelon-sized bump that could not be concealed beneath my mother’s hand-beaded bodice.

Paula smiled on bravely while Judge dabbed at the sweat on his brow in the front pew beside her. Across the aisle, Nana Jane closed her eyes and started to pray out loud as her sobbing husband and chagrined daughter drew closer to the altar.

From his spot next to a foursome of grizzly-bear sized men (all former offensive linemen for the SAHS Yellow Jackets), Jack decided to adopt his mother’s approach. He plastered a bright smile on his face even as his heavily gelled mullet started to condensate with sweat--all of which made its way down the collar of his suit jacket. He was sweating so profusely in fact that his dark jacket was noticeably damp when he accepted his bride’s hand from her weeping father and turned his back to the crowd.

My grandfather took his spot at the altar where he paused to gulp down a glass of water and attempt to collect himself before beginning the ceremony. Lucky for him, the crowd was still so stunned at the sudden turn of events that no one paid much attention to him as he stumbled through the service. Instead, the bodies in the pews whispered amongst each other and even passed notes written on the back of the wedding programs wondering how this could have happened and why nobody had known about it.

By the time everyone re-grouped at the National Guard Armory on the bay front for the reception, however, the story of how that lump came to be had made its way through the crowd. As it turned out, the Hamilton-Bailey Ancient City wedding of the century was not in fact the first ceremony shared between the town’s young star-crossed lovers.

Apparently, during a secret trip to Daytona Beach (St. Augustine’s sin city neighbor to the south) with friends over the summer, the couple made an alcohol-induced decision to visit Wally’s Wedding Wonderland, a shady beachside chateau sandwiched between an IHOP (site of the rehearsal dinner) and a bar (site of the reception). With the same wedding party who presided over the second ceremony on hand, my father put down his solo cup long enough to pay Wally $29.99 for the summer wedding special. Twenty minutes later, a surprisingly valid marriage license was issued and the happy newlyweds stumbled off to the nearby bar (a place called the Rough Seas, which I personally think was a foreboding sign).

Days later, once they had returned to St. Augustine and sobered up, the high school sweethearts realized their impromptu wedding may not have been the best idea they’d ever had. Plans for an annulment were discussed, but before any papers could be filed, my mother used Walgreens’ entire supply of pregnancy tests to confirm her worst fears.

Without a better alternative, the Ancient City’s own Romeo and Juliet committed their own double suicide in the form of a full confession to their respective parents.

Both agreed later that poison would have been easier and less painful.

Judge flew into a rage so severe he heavily damaged his custom-ordered painting of the South defeating the North at the battle of Gettysburg. Paula, meanwhile, disappeared into the kitchen with a flask and a pack of cigarettes.

Pastor James made a beeline for the St. George Tavern and drank openly in front of others for the first time since he had left seminary. Nana Jane stayed at home and began feverishly knitting a new scarf while alternately taking long swigs from a bottle of wine.

In the end, the two families came together and decided to try and make the best of a bad situation. A lavish wedding on Christmas Day was planned to try and take the focus away from the obvious focal point. But even though no one involved ever said it out loud, everyone was aware that all the poinsettias and holly in the world wouldn’t be able to take the attention off the real guest of honor; my older sister, Rebecca.

As the bride and groom rode off from the reception that day in a horse-drawn carriage, people were already busy rehearsing the story they would tell their children of the most infamous moment in St. Augustine history since the massacre at Matanzas Inlet.

Of course, what they didn’t know (which I have learned the hard way) was that twenty-five years later, the Christmas Day wedding of 1982 would barely crack the top ten on the list of Christmas spectacles involving the newly formed Hamilton-Bailey family.