ALEX COHEN, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
Sunday is Father's Day. We have the story now of one father and son as told by Charlie Rizzo. His dad Matt died more than 20 years ago.
COHEN: When Charlie was little, he wasn't even sure he had a father. His parents split up when he was very young and he went with his mom. But in 1959, when Charlie was 10, his mother died, so Charlie was sent back to Chicago to live with his father.
BRAND: Matt Rizzo was blind. He had just an eighth grade education. Here is Charlie Rizzo's remembrance of his dad.
Mr. CHARLIE RIZZO: My father at that time was an insurance agent, so he rented a very modest space that has small office in the front. I spent the first two years sleeping with my father. We only had one bed, but my father really didn't sleep much so pretty much had the bed to myself.
The reason my father didn't sleep much was that he was up all night typing. So along with the Braille typewriter, I'd hear my father making coffee and lighting cigarette after cigarette. His favorite brand was Lucky Strike. At that time I had no idea that he was working on this very serious philosophical treatise.
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. MATT RIZZO (Father): In a subtle, comma, yet not so subtle, comma, vein...
Mr. C. RIZZO: Recording these things continually on his tiny little tape recorder. Placing the right punctuation after each phrase. It was this beautiful poetic verse that was continually broken up by the punctuation, you know, semicolon, colon, apostrophe, on and on. Every night. It almost was like a lullaby to put me to sleep.
Mr. M. RIZZO: Close bracket, period.
Mr. C. RIZZO: And part of my tasks for my father was to go to the post office weekly and pick up Braille books and deliver books back. Then mind you, Braille books are rather large and they come in these hard metal boxes and you could probably on a two-wheel dolly stack up around a dozen of them.
Typically the work that I was picking up would be work by Virgil, by Dante, by Homer, Keats, Shelley, Swedenborg.
Mr. M. RIZZO: Tape seven, "The Aeneid," Virgil, continuation of commentary.
Mr. C. RIZZO: I had no idea of what the message was that he was trying to put on paper. I'm more interested in baseball, girls, and you know, cars, than I am about what Dante has to say about the meaning of life. So I befriended a group of fellows that were, you know, doing all sorts of fun things that I thought I might want to participate in. Our gang was the Junior JPs. JPs were the Junior Palaces which I think was a hamburger stand somewhere in the area. So one day one of the guys said, hey, I'm going to go rob this house, you want to come? At that time I had my car. I said sure. Come on, I'll drive. You know, it's just like we were going to the movies or something.
We broke the back window of the house, got in. There were three of us. We kind of took whatever we could. Mind you, we were probably 18 or 17 years old at the time. I got back in the car, drove away, went home. Apparently someone got my license plate number. So the following day I was at home. There was a knock on the door. The man at the door identified himself as a police officer. My father said can you just give me a minute with my son. And my father came back into the bedroom and closed the door. And my father started crying and said, son, I'm going to tell you what happened to me as a young man and why I don't have my sight any longer.
He told me that he was shot in an armed robbery with two other friends. The first man out of the door in the robbery was killed. They shot my father in the face. I went to jail. And that's when I learned how my father lost his sight, right at that moment. You know, I never heard that from my father. I had no idea. I always assume my father was, and the word around the house and family and such was that my father was shot in a hunting accident and I assumed that it was true forever.
And we weren't touching one another because I think we were both so disturbed. He's telling me essentially at the same age he just went through the exact same thing that I'm about to go through and how could I really do this to myself.
The police took me away and my father was there the next day bailing me out. He found me a really good attorney and I ended up getting five years probation, which wasn't bad since my father did five and a-half years in prison. All of this was a revelation to me, and more than anything it opened my eyes to my father's literary work.
Mr. M. RIZZO: Frightened, my dish(ph) dire portent, comma...
Mr. C. RIZZO: My father never made it past eighth grade. It turns out he had learned how to read Braille in prison from a man by the name of Nathan Leopold, who was one of the two men in the crime of the century who plotted to murder a young boy by the name of Bobby Franks in Chicago in the 1920s.
And that's when he started to read the classics. Those readings were the genesis of what became my father's life work, an attempt to describe the revelation that so many philosophers and writers attempted to describe in their work, and the work was born of his own revelation.
Mr. M. RIZZO: The hill stretches its shadow far. Period, close quote. End of commentary.
Mr. C. RIZZO: We had conversations near the end of his life that, you know, if in fact he passes on, that I'm going to continue to try and get this work published. He had faith in me. You know, he knew that I wouldn't let him down, that I would take on the task, and he was so devoted to the work that he never really broke away from it. The only time he would take a break was when he would walk out into the yard, and he'd walked incessantly to think. So we would walk, arm in arm - my father had hold on to my left arm and I just felt very proud that we were walking together and wish I could still be walking with my father.
(Soundbite of music)
BRAND: Charlie Rizzo, now 58, runs a decorative arts business in Chicago. His father, Matt Rizzo, wrote three major works, thousands of pages over the course of his life. None of it has been published.
COHEN: Charlie Rizzo's story about his dad was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister for Long Haul Productions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
As Father's Day approaches, Charlie Rizzo shares the story of his lifelong journey with his father, who was blind. Matt Rizzo died in 1986, but he remains a constant presence in Charlie's life.
As Father's Day approaches, Charlie Rizzo shares the story of his lifelong journey with his father. Matt Rizzo died in 1986, but he remains a constant presence in Charlie's life.
As a very young boy, Charlie's mother and father split up, and Charlie's mom took him to Los Angeles, leaving his father back in Chicago. For a while, Charlie says, he wasn't even sure he had a father. But in 1959, Charlie's mother died and Charlie, who was then 10 years old, was sent back to Chicago to live with his father, who was blind.
As Charlie tells independent producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister, learning the story of just how his father became blind helped him grow closer to the old man, who spent much of his life absorbed in philosophical writings.
The only time that his father would take a break from his writing was when he would walk out into the yard, Charlie says.
"So we would walk arm and arm — my father had to hold onto my left arm," Charlie says. "I just felt very proud that we were walking together. And I wish I could still be walking with my father."