Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Barefoot farmer traveled the world

By Carol Robidoux
MANCHESTER One of the last times I visited John Giovagnoli on his farm, he was on the mend, knocked off his bike by a hit-and-run driver a few weeks earlier.

        He leaned forward and parted his thinning hair to show me the stitched-up gash still healing on his head, then pointed in the direction of his bike leaning against the garage, too twisted to ride.

        He shook his head over the whole ordeal -- the sore elbow, the tender scalp wound, the mangled bike, the kind of person who would leave a man crumpled on the side of a road.

        But the deeper wound that day was what someone had done to his corn crop. A few days earlier, someone had driven through the edge of his 60-acre property, crushing a section of sturdy stalks that fronted his annual vegetable garden.

        "It's just like if he took my heart out. That's what it is to me, it's my pride -- and then someone comes by and destroys it, just like that," John had said to me.

        I had a similar feeling yesterday, at the sight of John's old farmhouse being razed. The real damage was already done, though. John Giovagnoli, stubborn and self-reliant, wanted to save his own home from the fire.

        Instead, he lost his life to it.

        I thought back to that hot August afternoon a few months ago when we wandered between the corn rows. He liked to go barefoot as he tended his crops, the only way to really know if the soil is moist enough, he said.

        John led me through a mini maze before settling on a particularly ripe ear. He peeled it from its stalk, pulled back the husk, sunk his teeth into the sweet kernels and winked. "You try it like this and  you'll never eat it any other way. Go ahead. Don't be shy," he said, offering me the other side of the cob.

        I'd learned from previous visits with John that shy doesn't register much with a man who has for years reaped what he's sown in this world and taken his lumps with dignity and grace.

        I'd also learned that, despite having raised a mob of kids on an urban farm and making a name for himself as a humble New England pig farmer, John Giovagnoli was a man of the world.

        His respite every January from his labor of love in the fields was the trips he took -- Vietnam, Africa, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Rome, China, Colombia, Thailand -- traveling with only what fit in a backpack.

        He bunked with villagers and ate whatever was offered.

        "I wanted to know for myself how the world was doing," John told me once. "I have yet to go to a country in the world and sit and eat and drink with these people and not get along. Only the politicians seem to have trouble with that."

        That was his other passion, after farming; the politics of war and peace.

        John told me a story about when he was a fresh-faced Army recruit, shipping out to join in the war in Italy. His commanding officer was giving a pep talk on the mission at hand.

        "They were preparing us to go out and kill people. I raised my hand and said, 'You're asking me to go and kill my blood relatives? If you want peace, let me go break bread with them. That's the only way to settle your differences.' He got so mad at me, he told me I'd never earn my stripes because I couldn't keep my mouth shut," John said, unable to keep from smiling at the thought.

        Years later he said he saw that same commander at a reunion, and wore his old uniform to show off his stripes.

        "If I learned anything in my travels, it's that people are people. All the fighting and problems in the world, we cause them because we don't know how to just sit down and break bread with one another."

        I took his lessons on cultivating friendship to heart.

        A few weeks later, on an impulse, I called him up. A friend of mine was in town with her world-traveling mom, a single lady also in her 80s. Could we come by and break some bread?

        John dusted off some old wine glasses for us and we spent a couple of hours there, swapping colorful stories about couch surfing, life on the road and being students of life.

        I asked him if he had any regrets, and he said no, not really.

        Then he smiled.

        "I always loved to go dancing. I still have my good suit in the closet," he said. "That's something I wish I'd done more of."

        As we left, he thanked us for coming. "Come back soon -- anytime," he said.

        I promised I would -- and I meant to.

        Instead , I will have to remember him as the barefoot farmer who traveled the world -- a restless kid from Jersey who served his country and earned his stripes -- who fell for his Army buddy's sister, a West Side girl, and followed his heart to Manchester, where he raised some kids, some corn and some cows.

        His legacy to us all is a simple lesson: cultivate kindness and reap what you sow, no matter where you hang your hat.

        For all his stubborn simplicity, John Giovagnoli has left the world a better place