By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Joseph LaPuzza was sitting with some friends atthe Tucumcari McDonald’s when the Greyhound bus pulled in.
Some of the passengers looked pretty scruffy, he said, and his friends speculated about sitting next to one of them.
“I wore better clothes when I was riding freight,” LaPuzza, 94, remembers telling the group. His friends started asking for stories, and he started telling them, about his year during the Great Depression as a teen-age hobo.
“You should write a book,” LaPuzza remembers his friends urging him. Then, LaPuzza said, his nephew Michael LaPuzza of Mustang, Okla., got in on the urging and threw in an offer to help write the book, entitled “The Light at the End of the Tunnel,” and get it published.
“He’s always been a kind of hero to me,” Michael LaPuzza, 75, said of his uncle. Michael was 10 when Uncle Joseph came back from World War II. Between that time and the dawn of the 21st Century, however, Michael said there was a 50-year gap in contact between them that ended when they realized they were each other’s only living relatives.
Michael made sure his uncle got a tape recorder, and Joseph LaPuzza started dictating his memories. Michael’s wife Cheryl transcribed the spoken memoir and using minimal editing, Michael and Cheryl put the book together. The result is the story of a time that began with watching trains go by in the railyards of Melrose Park, Ill., during the great Depression.
As they watched the trains go by, LaPuzza and three of his friends started talking about hopping freights and going to California when they were old enough.
When LaPuzza was 15, the group decided all were old enough, and the four decided to put to the test their months of practice rides, in which they would hop a slow freight car, ride it for a few blocks, then jump off just as the train started to gather speed.
In July 1935, “Zits,” “Budda,” “Sibby” and “Larkie,” LaPuzza, hopped a boxcar in Melrose Park, vowing to ride the rails to California.
LaPuzza alone made it to Golden State. The others got separated and returned home. In California, LaPuzza he settled for a few months in Vallejo, on San Francisco Bay, and got a Works Progress Administration job in a shipyard.
Getting there, however, put LaPuzza and his friends through some harrowing experiences.
“Nothing in that book,” he said, “was anything I told my parents,” he said, even after he returned home.
There were dangers and missed connections that separated the group, one by one, until LaPuzza made it to the West Coast. Shortly after they started their journey, LaPuzza remembers, the four boarded a boxcar, but LaPuzza managed only to catch the car on the outside. Soon, it started to rain and the rain became a thunderstorm. Somehow, pelted by rain and inching his way along the box car traveling at 50 miles per hour, LaPuzza said, he managed to find his way to the top of the box car’s sliding door and swing his way inside. LaPuzza remembers his chagrin, when, five miles later, the train came to a stop.
And there were also acts of kindness.
In North Platte, Neb., he writes, railroad police pulled LaPuzza, his friends and some other stowaways from the train. LaPuzza remembers putting the 95 cents he had into a tobacco pouch, hoping that the police wouldn’t take the money. At a time when a diner meal, complete with pie and coffee, sold for 35 cents, he said, that 95 cents was a considerable sum.
The railroad police instead took the boys to the local police station, where, instead of being jailed, they were fed hot dogs and bedded down for the night. In the morning, all received a doughnut and black coffee and were sent on their way.
The incident that gives the book its title occurred as LaPuzza made his way by freight-hopping from California back to Melrose Park. Riding atop a boxcar that entered a tunnel, LaPuzza found himself encased in suffocating smoke, overheated air and total darkness. After suffering burns and preparing to die, however, LaPuzza saw the end of the tunnel. LaPuzza declared his survival a miracle and started believing in angels.
LaPuzza recounts this incident and other events and developments, including the California girl he fell in love with for a time, identified only as “Gloria,” and a kindly traveling companion named “Hobo Red.” LaPuzza never married.
After returning home, LaPuzza worked through the remainder of the Great Depression at Civilian Conservation Corps camps. He enlisted in the Army in 1941, before Pearl Harbor launched the U.S. into World War II, and served at several U.S. installations before going overseas. He served in North Africa, France and Italy as a combat military police officer with the job of taking prisoners from the battlefields to prison camps.
After the war, he settled in Melrose Park and worked factory jobs. After the death of both of his parents, however, he moved on. In 1973, he found himself living in Tucumcari “by accident,” he said. He had stopped in Tucumcari and found himself talking to Troy Snyder, who owned a Mobil gas station. The conversation turned into an offer for work, and LaPuzza decided he liked Tucumcari, where he has lived ever since. He owned an Atex gasoline station on the east side of town, he said, until he retired.
LaPuzza now lives in a mobile home in Tucumcari. Its walls are lined with books and memorabilia. HO scale model railroad cars and tracks are lined up on counters and tabletops. He keeps busy, he said, with many hobbies. He’s even learning to play the piano on a small electric keyboard.
Staying active and busy, he said, are the keys to staying happily alive.
Michael LaPuzza said his uncle is a crowning example of the Greatest Generation, the one that fought World War II and came home to build the U.S. into the world’s greatest industrial power.
His uncle’s story, he said, is an account of “a different time. We looked up to all those guys.”
Published by Tate Publishing and Enterprises, “The Light at the End of the Tunnel” is available through bookstores nationwide, from the publisher at www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore, or by visiting barnesandnoble.com or amazon.com, according to Michelle Whitman, publicist for Tate. The list price is $10.99.