Today—October 22, 2014—is the occasion of two significant anniversaries for me. It is the 104th anniversary of the birth of my father, Fernand Andris. It is also the 46th anniversary of my successfully giving up smoking tobacco. Also, it is no accident that these anniversaries occur on the same day.
I was a pretty traditional kid growing up, but somewhere around my junior year in college, I started smoking. Many of my friends were doing it. It’s difficult to get back into that past frame of mind, but I would say things like, “It gives me something to do with my hands.” It was weird. Without giving even a thought to the health consequences of smoking, I was mysteriously drawn to this increasingly popular practice among my friends. Besides, I was a jazz musician without a drug problem, and I needed SOME kind of addiction to serve. Soon I was smoking two packs of Winstons a day, and that continued for almost the whole decade of my twenties. I was never without that red and white pack of these filter cigarettes in my shirt pocket, and smoked everywhere I could—in my room, in the car, in restaurants, took breaks from my library work.
One factor worked in my favor, I wouldn’t describe my health as delicate or fragile, but my body definitely would not put up with very much abuse from very early in childhood. As the decade wore on, it became clear to me, as it, by contrast, did not become apparent to many of my smoking friends, that this practice was not one that I could keep up indefinitely. My coffee and nicotine saturated brain could not doze off until sometimes 2 a.m., and I began to have regular bouts with coughing. I had had severe childhood asthma and allergies; my bronchial tubes did not like smoke. I tried Kools for a short time, but they made me worse, not better.
My dear old dad, Fernand Andris, and I am his namesake, James Fernand Andris, had kept an eye on this excess of mine. No stranger to addiction, himself, Fernand, had a lifelong struggle with bouts of binge drinking. He was a sweetheart when he was sober, ready and willing to give anyone a helping hand, but when he was “on a toot,” watch out. If you crossed him, and sometimes, you didn’t even have to do that, he would pick a fight out of you. He never got violent with mom or us kids, but once when I was about 12, I saw a bloodied young man he had beaten nearly to a pulp over some stupid argument.
But dad had kicked his own smoking habit, and he was concerned about both my mother—who smoked a pack of Camels a day, allegedly without inhaling—and also me. And most of the time, he was sober, and he would simply talk to us about it. He really wanted me, in particular, to stop smoking, and he would talk about the old drunks in our end of town, Marietta, Ohio, and how their smoking and drinking had rendered them pretty pathetic. My mother and I remained stubbornly attached to our practice.
As I got into my late twenties, I made a few serious attempts to stop smoking. Alas, the story was always the same. I would go along well for a day to a week, and then something would happen to draw me back into smoking again. I began to learn that going out drinking was a sure risk to my non-smoking. I wasn’t about to give up drinking, either. I loved the bop group, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and one of their songs had the lines, “Give me that wine. Unhand that bottle. Beat my head out of shape, but leave my grape.” Or I would go out on a gig, and the bass player was sure to offer me a cigarette. And all my yesterdays continued to light my path and cigarettes the way to smoky death.
In the fall of 1968 I was half way through a Ph. D. program in Bloomington on the beautiful, tree-studded campus of Indiana University. The program was stressful, and I was smoking even more. I was also coughing more, sometimes even coughing up pink stuff, I was having chest pains, and I generally did not feel well. I have no idea how it came to me; I think it just popped into my mind. Even though I had been away from home for almost a decade, I faithfully called my parents at least once a week and and talked as long as the conversation held out. This was sincere on both my parents’ and my part; despite the many challenges of our family life, we were and continue to be a loving family. The family details might get complicated, but the love was never complicated, and we all understood that (for the most part, another story).
On October 22, 1968, I called home. I talked for a while to my mom and then asked for her to put my dad on the phone.
“Hello, Jim,” dad said, “how’s it going? The goose is hanging high?”
That was one of dad’s expressions, that always seemed to delight him, “Everything’s copacetic, and the goose is hanging high.” Normally I would joke and say something like “Very hight, today, dad.” But instead, I launched into my spiel: “I got some good news for you, dad. I’m going to stop smoking. And this time, I’m not going to start up again, because this is what I am giving you for your birthday present. I figure if I don’t just stop, but I actually give my stopping to you as a present. Then I can’t take it back.”
Dad was pleased, and he began to remind me of all the reasons why my plan to finally stop smoking was a very good idea. We talked a while longer and said goodbye.
Just as I hung up, I took out the half-smoked pack of Winston cigarettes from my pocket, with their gold filter ends showing through the torn hole in the tinfoil lining, and I laid them right on the top of my dresser in my sleeping room on 3rd Avenue. I reasoned that if I couldn’t stop smoking with an open pack of cigarettes within easy reach, I probably wouldn’t be able to resist the next temptation that lurked along the path of my challenging graduate student and sometime musician existence. During the next year, I came very close to smoking again. I was amazed how, even after weeks or months of not giving it much thought, just the right combination of events or stress could trigger this almost irresistible urge to resume my bad habit.
On October 22, 1969, I gratefully and proudly took the old, now stale, pack of cigarettes off the top of my dresser and threw them into the waste basket, and I called my father to proclaim victory.
The older I get, the more I love my dad. We were so different, he and I. We worked so hard at understanding each other. I can’t tell you how many times Fernand Andris has saved my life, but I can tell you it was a lot of times, and his helping hand continues. I am profoundly glad to have had this father, warts and addictions and all. He does still live in my heart, and every so often, when I least expect it, I hear him speaking to the tune of my voice in some social situation or other. It’s a comfort.