[ Chapter 2 ]
I suppose it goes without saying that anything with roots in a lean-to wedding chapel sandwiched between an IHOP (site of the rehearsal dinner) and a bar (site of the reception) is probably destined for disaster. Unfortunately, my parents were so blinded by the powerful trio of love, rebellion, and alcohol that they failed to notice the army of red warning flags crowded into the hallowed halls of Wally’s Wedding Wonderland with them on that balmy summer night.
To their credit, my parents did not go down to Daytona Beach (St. Augustine’s sin-city neighbor to the south) on the night in question with the intention of getting married. My dad, Jack Hamilton, was a college sophomore and my mom, Liza Jane Bailey, had just finished high school. They were two years into a relationship born strictly out their mutual goal to upset their fathers, though I don’t think either of them knew how successful they would eventually be.
Along with several members of the 1980 state championship offensive line and a contingent of recently graduated varsity cheerleaders, my parents had made their way south for a long night of good old-fashioned bar hopping. In between drinking establishments number three and four, the underage drinkers stumbled into a nearby IHOP for fuel to continue their quest. Over pancakes and orange juice, the group happened to spot the neon pink sign for Wally’s. It was a little white chapel that would be washed away in a hurricane the following year, but in 1982 it was the only 24-hour wedding chapel on Daytona Beach. Someone (it’s still unclear whether it was a friend of my dad’s or my mom’s) made a joke about Wally’s that turned into a serious conversation that turned into my dad writing Wally a check for $25—the cost of the Spring Break Wedding Special–champagne and solo cups included.
In less than twenty minutes, papers were signed, a ceremony was performed (I’ve seen pictures, there’s nothing like a wedding party comprised of three drunk cheerleaders in halter tops and short skirts and five drunk football players in swim trunks and tank tops, all of them clutching red plastic cups and flashing crooked smiles at the camera), and a surprisingly legitimate marriage license was issued.
It’s my understanding that there was a tiny moment of clarity about a month after their impromptu wedding ceremony when my parents realized their secret marriage might not have been such a great idea. I try not to dwell on the fact that the chaotic circumstances which I now call my life might have been avoided entirely if that moment of clarity hadn’t been so rudely interrupted by the sudden appearance of my older sister, Becca.
Just a few weeks before she was scheduled to move into her freshman dorm at Florida State, my young mother saw her worst fears illustrated by two lines on a stick. Before she could even wrap her mind around the sudden change in her future plans, however, my Nana Jane came flying through the front door of my grandparents’ church-owned home in a blind rage. Apparently, the pharmacist who worked at the local drugstore where my mother bought her pregnancy test had immediately called his wife (as anyone would have if they saw the preacher’s daughter buying such an item). His wife answered the phone on her way out the door to meet her Sunday School group for afternoon tea. It just so happened that the pharmacist’s wife’s Sunday School group included Nana Jane.
So much for living in a small town.
A conflict of epic proportions, tantamount to the battles fought by the French and Spanish when St. Augustine was first settled hundreds of years ago, erupted inside the tiny house. I’ve been told by several witnesses that the shouting grew so loud my Grandpa James actually heard it a mile away, inside his basement office at the First Baptist Church of St. Augustine.
By the time he arrived home, my mother and grandmother were in separate corners of the living room, squaring off like prized fighters across the shag rug. Somehow, Grandpa James managed to fling himself in between the two women and bravely hold them off long enough to discern what their argument was about. Without saying a thing (my grandfather has always been a man of few words, except when he’s in the pulpit) Grandpa James left the house, climbed into his aging Buick, and drove six blocks south to the waterfront Hamilton estate.
For centuries, the notorious 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 (including Grandpa James) 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, my paternal grandfather, the honorable Judge Raymond Q. Hamilton III (known to most as simply “Judge”) was the reigning patriarch of the family. He had already ascended to the highest-ranking judicial position in all of St. Johns County, but his eyes were focused on a seat at the district court bench that was slated to open up before the next election. In fact, he was relaxing on the veranda of the family’s bayfront estate, sipping cognac, smoking a cigar, and discussing his political future with my uncle, Ray IV (my dad’s older brother), when Grandpa James pulled up.
According to Uncle Ray, Grandpa James started shouting at Judge that he was going to chop off a favorite appendage of his no-good son and toss it into the Atlantic. Judge unfolded his massive frame (he’s well north of six feet tall and beyond three hundred pounds) from his rocking chair and took a wide stance at the top of the porch steps. He issued a stern legal and physical threat to my maternal grandfather should he attempt to lay even one finger on my Uncle Ray.
Confused, Grandpa James explained that it was Jack, not Ray, that he wanted dismember. Suddenly relieved, Judge downed the rest of his drink and told Grandpa James that Jack was upstairs, have at it.
For years, the relationship between my father and Judge had been growing sour. Not only was Jack uninterested in the family business of law, he had turned his one good attribute in Judge’s eyes (his prowess on the dewy grass of a football field) into something of a shame.
An ardent Florida Gators booster, fan, and alumnus, Judge had nearly suffered a massive stroke when my father announced he was accepting a scholarship to play football for the Florida State Seminoles. My grandfather would sooner have seen his youngest son walk through town in full drag carrying a Jimmy Carter campaign sign than see him don 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.
Distraught beyond words, Judge had all but cut my father from his will when Jack went away to school. Hence the reason Judge found no need to stand between his youngest son and my Grandpa James.
Who knows what would have happened between the men if my paternal grandmother, Paula, hadn’t stepped out of the house at that moment to see what all the fuss was about. When she saw the Baptist minister in a rage on her front lawn, Paula (who refuses under any circumstances to be called Grandma, Granny, or any other derivative of the word for fear that it might make her sound old) wrung her hands on her apron and in the spirit of southern hospitality, offered my Grandpa James a drink. Any other woman might have been scoffed at for interfering at that moment, but with her Alabama drawl, red lipstick and preference for low-cut house dresses, Paula tends to have a way with men.
Over a pitcher of sweet tea, Grandpa James calmly explained the situation to Paula, who immediately summoned her youngest son into the kitchen. If Jack was curious as to why his girlfriend’s father was seated at the table, he didn’t ask any questions. Brandishing her famous beauty queen smile, Paula poured her son a glass of tea, added a splash of vodka, and told him he was going to be a daddy.
Half an hour later, Paula had everyone–including my mother and Nana Jane–situated on the antique furniture in her living room. While the rest of the group sat with their shoulders stooped, already bearing the burden of the news, Paula drew on her hereditary, matriarchal, southern need to keep the family from drowning. She quickly began to draw up plans to salvage the wreckage left by Wally’s Wedding Wonderland.
First, Paula said the family would tell everyone that my mother had purchased the pregnancy test for a friend, not for herself. Then, just before they were to leave for Tallahassee, my father would perform an elaborate wedding proposal in my grandfather’s church during Sunday services. When my mother accepted, they would announce plans for a lavish Christmas wedding during their holiday break from school. Jack would go on to Tallahassee, while Liza Jane would stow away at her parents’ house to hide her growing belly.
The lynchpin of the plan was what inevitably doomed it to failure. Paula selected Christmas Day for the wedding because she assumed that most people in town would not skip out on time with their families on such an important holiday to attend a wedding. Therefore, the locals would know that the couple had been officially married in my grandfather’s church, but no one would be there to see the uninvited guest of honor at the ceremony. I’m not sure what the plan was for how to explain the baby that would come along three months after the wedding, but I’m sure Paula had something in mind.
Settled on a plan of action, the group dispersed and began playing out the roles that Paula had created for them as part of her elaborate scheme.
While some people in St. Augustine were encouraged by the sudden softness of the relationship between the Hamiltons and the Baileys that followed my parents’ very public engagement, most folks just saw cause for suspicion. Once that ring went on my mother’s finger, a very visible battle should have erupted between the two families that would have put the Capulets and Montagues to shame. When no guns were drawn nor police reports filed, people grew certain that something sinister was going on behind closed doors.
To add fuel to the conspiracy theorists’ fire, rumors flew around town about the mysterious disappearance of the bride-to-be at the end of the summer. Though she was supposed to be away at school, people still expected to see her in the front pew of First Baptist on an occasional weekend visit. When she wasn’t spotted over Thanksgiving break either, every beauty parlor and poorly lit bar in town sounded the alarm.
With all the gossip slipping through the cobblestone streets, it was no surprise that Paula’s theory on a small turn out for a Christmas wedding was blown to pieces. On the day of the ceremony, a massive crowd began to build hours before the doors of First Baptist were even opened. So many people lined up along the downtown sidewalks that the police had to come out and close down several streets in the interest of public safety.
Panicked, Paula tried to find someone who would stand at the door and at least keep out those who had not been invited. Unfortunately, no one was willing to stand between the gossip-fueled mob and what had turned into the social event of the year. Therefore, just after noon on Christmas Day, the large oak doors of First Baptist Church swung out into the chilly December morning and invited half the city into its warm chapel.
A sea of ruby poinsettias, ivory candles, and hunter boughs of pine set the scene for what was to come. Amid hushed voices and urgent whispers, the crowd of regular parishioners, gossip mongers, and other interested parties vied for the best seats in the house.
Meanwhile, downstairs in her father’s office, my mother Liza Jane donned her wedding gown. It was everything that an eighties wedding gown should have been from the puffy, Cinderella sleeves made of white satin to the v-necked, beaded bodice and overindulgent lacework. (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.)
Moments before the ceremony began, Grandpa James stepped into the room and instantly burst into tears at the sight of his only daughter in her full wedding day regalia. To an uninformed bystander, it would have seemed he was overcome with joy and nostalgia, but in fact his true emotions were shame and embarrassment. Grandpa James knew that once he stepped into the chapel with his daughter on his arm, his life would be changed forever.
Just before the doors swung open and the crowd leapt to its feet, someone shoved a bouquet of red roses mixed with holly into my mother’s hand and wished her the best of luck. She would need it.
In the front pew, Paula 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 to come.
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 church ceiling. Jaws dropped to the floor as Liza Jane and the watermelon-sized bump beneath her dress began moving down the aisle. For all their careful planning, my family had only managed to postpone the inevitable growth of a tiny flame into a massive inferno.
As my mother and grandfather neared the altar, Paula continued to smile on bravely while Judge stood beside her and dabbed at the sweat on his brow. Across the aisle, Nana Jane closed her eyes and started to pray out loud as her sobbing husband and chagrined daughter drew near.
From his spot next to a foursome of grizzly-bear sized men (the same offensive linemen who were present for the first wedding), my dad decided to adopt his mother’s approach. He too 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.
Grandpa James took his spot at the altar where he paused to gulp down a glass of water and make a futile attempt to collect himself before beginning the ceremony. Fortunately for him, the crowd was still so stunned at the sudden turn of events that few paid any attention to him as he stumbled through the service.
By the time everyone re-grouped at the VFW for the reception later that afternoon, the truth had been set free. Some claimed to have known all along what the two families were hiding, but most admitted to being completely caught by surprise. Either way, much like those star-crossed lovers of Shakespearean fame, my parents’ ill-fated love affair was destined from its onset to become an iconic tale of romance and tragedy
Over boxed wine and fried chicken, people began to rehearse the newest story added to St. Augustine’s history books, just behind Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ 1565 founding of the city itself and Ponce de Leon’s endless search for the fabled Fountain of Youth.
In my own personal history books, that day marked the start of my lifelong aversion to the Christmas holiday. That one little event—my parents’ second wedding in six months—began the avalanche of truly disastrous holiday shenanigans that would shape the first twenty-three years of my life.