SEBRING - Everyone has a Christmas present he or she will always remember: Fanner .50s cap guns, a California Barbie with short shorts and a tank top or that first bike with training wheels.
"One gift came immediately to mind," said Jim Gulledge, who was born in Fort Pierce but came to Highlands County in 1995 from Blue Ridge, Ga.
"Santa gave me an Erector set when I was 8 years old. We were living in Sebastian at the time. I believe it was one of the best gifts I ever received."
He put together Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds that could be powered with a small electric motor.
"I was so excited," Gulledge said. "I'd never had anything that elaborate. It was right after the Depression, and we didn't have that kind of money. It probably cost $8 or $9."
In the 1930s, a loaf of bread sold for a dime, and a full meal could cost 25 cents. The original Erector/Structural Steel and Electro-Mechanical Builder was patented by Alfred Carlton Gilbert in 1913. Metal beams with holes for nuts and bolts could be assembled along with pulleys, gears and wheels. Erector became the most popular metal construction toy in the U.S. because budding engineers could build a train, then take it apart and put together ...
"Bridges and many other things," said Gulledge.
Gilbert was inspired by the train he rode from New Haven to New York. He watched as a section of track was being electrified and steel girders were erected to carry power lines.
In the 1980s, Ideal Toys and then Tyco Toys bought the brand, which is now owned by Meccano, a French company.
"It was educational and loads of fun," Gulledge said. "It was very instructive. I learned which way to turn to tighten screws, how to rig stuff up - it was a very good thing for a boy."
Radio and TV ads appealed to juvenile males with the slogan, "Hello Boys."
"You just don't see Erector sets around anymore. Kids these days are much more sophisticated and look for video games, etc. What a pity."
Where's that set now?
"We moved around a lot, so it probably got lost in the shuffle," said Gulledge, who serviced Whirlpool appliances in the home.
Which gift jumped to your mind? When did that happen? Where were you? How old were you? Who gave it to you? What was said? What did you do afterwards?
"When me and my twin sister Kim were 11 years old, my dad went to Georgia and bought us a beautiful horse, black with white stockings and a blaze down her face," said Kay Schuler Reark, whose father was a land surveyor in Avon Park and Dade County.
"He tied her to a tree so we would be surprised. When we woke Christmas morning, we opened a package that had a Polaroid picture of her."
Dad told the girls this was a do-it-yourself Christmas present. But it was Dad's turn to be surprised.
"She had broken the rope during the night," Reark said. "After a bit of driving around, we found her at a barn down the road, where other horses were kept."
They named her Misty, and the thoroughbred mare shared a childhood of riding, showing and teaching. Kay rode Western saddle in horse shows; Kim rode English saddles.
"We had a big red barn on five acres in what they called horse country," said Reark, whose parents moved to Highlands County in 1974. "She was a great horse and would let us do anything with her."
They've owned several more horses, said Reark, who has co-owned the Wild Turkey Tavern with her husband for 33 years. "What a way to grow up."
For years, Judee Van Brookshoven tried to tell Mom and Dad about a certain type doll she wanted.
"And I never got it. And finally, when I was about 25, I showed Mom in a store the type doll I was talking about. And I got her. And I was tickled pink."
Ron Carmony will probably never forget his most memorable Christmas gift.
"It was a brand-new Lionel O-Gauge train set that I received when I was 7 years old, in 1956," said Carmony, who lived at the time in Crawfordsville, Ind.
Dad had it set up around the tree when Carmony came downstairs. "I don't remember precisely what I said, but I was shocked and in awe. Dad was beaming from ear to ear, and Mom was trying to take pictures through her tears.
"Since I didn't think there was a snowball's chance I'd actually get an electric train," said Carmony, who now lives in Sebring. "I was ecstatic and played with it for weeks after Christmas."
The child of a middle-class family, he'd pretty much correlated his father's school-teacher salary, their disposable income, and what Santa brought.
His brother's best friend, who got a train set the same year and is still into trains today, said that Lionel set cost between $30 and $35 in 1956.
"What made the gift even more special was discovering 50 years later in 2006, while cleaning out my parents' house to be sold, that Dad made only $1,500 per year back then in Shelby County. So that had to be a huge expenditure for them, undoubtedly requiring a lot of sacrifice. Precious memories."
The friend and Carmony's brother were neighbors, and all three were really into trains, so they all wanted a Lionel. "I remember that it had to be a Lionel and not an American Flyer, so I suspect that had to be due to advertising," Carmony said.
And what happened to his train? "Sadly, when I went away to college, I decided to get rid of childish things, and let a hobby store owner give me $20 for it. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. Hindsight is 20-20, for sure."
Bob Polle's favorite Christmas gift is a tie. No, not that kind of tie.
A year earlier, when he was 9 and lived in Macedon, N.Y., he had almost died in the hospital.
The Christmas he was 10, he got a slot car racing set from Santa. "I still believed in him," he said.
Slot cars are placed on grooves - slots - in the track on which they run. They were usually models of actual automobiles, but some bodies were designed for miniature racing. It was a fad in the 1960s, with sales reaching $500 million annually, and included 3,000 public courses in the United States alone.
The fad sputtered by the start of the 1970s, but Polle can remember playing with those slot cars for years. He eventually gave it to a cousin.
But his best present ever: two years ago, Polle, now a Sebring resident, raced to the hospital just after Thanksgiving. His special-needs son was in critical condition.
"He came around though, just after New Year's."
Our Facebook readers said:
Loraine Smith Morris: "When I was 10 or so, my grandma bought me a pinball machine to thwart me from always stealing her quarters and going to the Lil' General store and playing theirs. Best Christmas EVER! Still stole grandma's quarters though ... LOL."
Jacob Mcclelland wrote: "A few years back I got a wall hanging 8-point buck and my father-in-law had it done by Christmas Day."
Sandy Kessler wrote: "6 Christmases ago a student 11 years old called and said I should hurry to their house in Avon Park. I was in Sebring. They had something that would spoil. The thought of cookies made me race to AP and she excitedly said, "Close your eyes and hold out your hand," into which she put a tiny black Chihuahua we would name Gingy. Why? Because I had once told her a story of a Chihuahua I was unable to save and she told her parents she wanted to do this for me. His picture is on my Facebook profile. He is now 6 yrs of age and that memory means the world to me that a child would want to do this."