I understand that doping more or less became the only story worth telling about Lance Armstrong, but I drift to the less more than the more. I always thought some nice scenes and some of the most interesting moments of Tour de Lance were lost to the miasma of doping. This is one of them. Just about as soon as I met Don Giacomazzi and his family on the side of the road during the Tour of California, I knew I wanted him and them somehow in the story. He died in August of 2011. I still think about him.
The kitchen radio is playing soft enough that Don can hear it playing but not what it is playing, and the window is cracked open, and coming in on the airflow is the olfactory equivalent of the radio, the smell of the fields for the alfalfa and the corn and the wheat, and the big piles of silage and the cows, of course the cows, the nine hundred they’re milking a day, and diesel and gas and probably sweat, cumulative sweat, and turned-up dirt, and wet dirt and cow shit and piss, all of it making up the smell of Giacomazzi Dairy that Don is barely aware of but would miss instantly and acutely if it were to suddenly vanish — and which he will, he knows, miss almost most dearly among all the things he will miss when he is gone.
He ends up driving around the farm a little. He doesn’t get out of the truck much because he doesn’t want to have to unload the walker from the back. Before it happens to you, he thinks, you’d sure as shit figure something like all the time needing a walker or that damned scooter wheelchair would be nothing except humiliation. But two days ago, for Hanford’s Fourth of July celebration, he was in the scooter, so he and Jackie and some of the kids couldn’t sit up in the bleachers at the school the way they always had, and not knowing what else to do they went out in the field and lay down, and it was the goddamndest thing of his life, being right under the fireworks like that.
You never know what’s going to take a hold of you.
After the Tour of California went by that day in February, he got on the computer and looked at the whole route the racers had ridden from Visalia past Hanford all the way to Paso Robles. He wanted to see that route for himself. He couldn’t explain why to anyone, but he kept on it and got one of his sons-in-law, Nagi, to drive him the whole way at the end of May. Then he and Jackie did it in June, going off course a little on their own but getting there in the end.
He drives past the calf pens, and he drives by a field of alfalfa and the twenty-five-ton mounds of additional feed he buys at $350 a ton, rolled corn and canola and mill run in giant three-sided bins. He stops at the hay and rolls down the window and puts his head out and inhales as deep as he can, which isn’t much these days but still draws in enough of his dairy farm’s fragrance to nearly intoxicate him. That green hay, the smell of it and the look of it and knowing he grew it and also that, as dairy farmers say, there’s milk in it, all of that is beautiful today to Don Giacomazzi beyond any words or thought he could form clearly enough to recognize as such.
He drives by the old tank house, the only original building still standing from back in 1893, and he pulls in and stops at the house he grew up in, where his mom still lives and after a while he gets himself out and up into his old home and his mother is sitting in her chair in the living room. He starts telling her about the Tour de France stage he watched that morning while he was getting dialysis, while 8.8 pounds of shit was taken out of his body. He never can understand a goddamn thing about the race, but he saw Lance Armstrong, and the guy who was winning, which he knew only because of the yellow jersey, which even he, Don, knows about, and he saw some other racers he guesses he recognized but couldn’t name — the Italian guy in the light green, who rode right by him close enough to touch back on that street corner in February, and the little bald guy who he thinks is friends with Armstrong and who won the whole Tour of California, and that tiny muscled-up kid who won a bunch of the stages. Don tells Lilia about all of this, anyway, but he loses his voice for some reason after dialysis, and also it turns out that Lilia doesn’t have her hearing aid in, so after his whole story is done she asks if he knows what happened in the Tour today. He swears at her with affection and pain in his voice, and he leaves.
Later, he and Jackie go out into Hanford for their anniversary, and they stop in at the Superior Dairy. He’s missed coming here. He can’t eat ice cream anymore — as he understands it, there’s too much calcium in the ice cream for his body to clear, and the calcium could get bad into his veins and make sure he died some kind of horrible death. Already, because of complications from the diabetes, he got a toe and a finger amputated awhile back, and has that hole in his foot the traveling nurse has to come out to the house to clean all the time. The diabetes and now the kidney failure and also the problem with oxygen getting to his heart are all complications themselves of a long string of complications that have to do, as far as he can tell or care, with getting lymphoma in 2001 and generally running into, when it came to his health, a long string of bad breaks. Or maybe the real cause of it all, he thinks sometimes, was living a life.
The Superior is a big-windowed place with two long, old Formica counters at which sit spinner stools mounted to the floor. The men sitting in here look stove in but strong, lifelong farmers and laborers wearing feed and co-op caps and cowboy hats dirty and crinkled. The women, even the young women, have wide hips and strong torsos and open faces. The children have ice cream on their shirt fronts.
The scoops are enormous, a single one the equal of five or six most places, the banana splits towering up level with the eater’s head. The servings aren’t some kind of big-city gimmick, some novelty of marketing that someone decided was a way to make a name for the place. It’s just the way the Superior started serving ice cream in 1929, with no reason to skimp in such a dairy-rich county. And with the taste just as overwhelming as the serving size — a single spoonful has the sensory wallop of a fresh lemon or a habanero pepper — getting all the way through a Superior Dairy ice cream is, like lying in a field under fireworks, the goddamndest thing.
Rocky road used to be Don’s favorite back when he could still eat some, and that’s what Jackie orders, one for the two of them. When the waitress sets it clinking down onto their table, Don picks up one of the spoons and peers around the ice cream at Jackie in a way he didn’t have to because he could see her plainly the whole time.
“It’s amazing,” he says, and he shakes his spoon at the ice cream a couple of times then digs it in and brings it into his mouth. If anyone could imagine a tough-ass old farmer like Don Giacomazzi crying you could maybe say that he almost cries right then.
Jackie is nodding as she moves her spoon in and out for her first bite.
Don swallows and he does the peering thing again, and he is smiling when he says, “We have been married forty-six years and we have four children and those children have children and grandchildren, and one day I am just going to not be here anymore. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
He goes for another spoonful. It is amazing to Don Giacomazzi that one day he will just be gone. But he reckons it more amazing that he was ever here, that he ever got a chance to taste Superior Dairy’s rocky road ice cream, that he was lucky enough to smell his own hay all these years, and that he was on a street corner when that goddamn Lance Armstrong rode by.
an excerpt from Chapter Five of Tour de Lance