What gifts they were! Bob Odum, sisters Leah Zapalac Tietjen and Lestell Zapalac Villanueva and I remember childhood Christmas presents that made our hearts flip in excitement. Here are our memories.

Hop on the bike, Bob

Bob Odum of Katy, Texas, and his older brother, Paul, grew up in Smackover, Arkansas, in the early 1940s. There was a difference of 13 months in their ages.

“Looking back, it seems we developed sort of a jealous streak that I suspect wasn’t much different than lots of other brothers who were close in age,” Bob says. “We were especially resentful when we didn’t get the same thing.”

Bob Odum looks back on his relationship with his older brother, Paul, with great fondness.

What a gift!

One Christmas morning, the brothers got what Bob recalls as a “whopping surprise.” Brand spanking new bicycles were stashed away on the front porch.

Although many of their friends already had bikes, the Odum boys were surprised at their good fortune. They knew how hard their dad worked for every dollar he earned as an oilfield mechanic and welder. 

“Saying we were elated doesn’t come close to describing how we felt.”

Since the weather that Christmas morning was perfect – cold but sunny – the boys jumped on their new bikes and sped off on the first of many adventures and good times.

Bob’s bike versus Paul’s

“I guess it was only natural that we started comparing the features on the two bicycles. Although they were the same size, they were not even close to being identical.”

Paul’s bike was manufactured by Schwinn, “the holy grail” of bike makers. Baby blue with white trim, it had a luggage rack over the back tire and battery-powered headlight and horn, plus whitewall tires.

“Whitewall tires were the “wow factor” in those days,” Bob recalls. “They were recognized as the top of the line not only for bicycles but also motorcycles, automobiles and other rolling stock.”

Minus some options

A cycle company called Murphy had manufactured Bob’s bicycle. Maroon in color with white trim, it had no headlight, no horn, no luggage rack and no whitewall tires.

Noticing the discrepancies, Bob at first experienced a stabbing pain of jealousy but later appreciated how well his bike was built.  

“That proved to be very beneficial in the long run,” he says with a wink.

Wannabe racecar drivers

When racecar driver Jimmie Lynch and his Death Dodgers performed at the fair in Shreveport, Louisiana, Bob and Paul watched with open mouths. In that wild and crazy demonstration, Lynch drove through a hoop of flames, jumped off ramps and orchestrated live crashes to the delight of the audience.

The brothers devised their own daredevil antics as they regularly raced out into the country, especially after the family moved to the outskirts of Shreveport.

Bob’s bike held up to the abuse just fine.

Rearview mirror thought

“I thank my parents for our bikes because I now know they made financial sacrifices to bring such joy to their two sons that Christmas,” Bob says. 

Can he still ride?

“Absolutely. That’s something you never forget, but none of that daredevil stuff now!” Bob adds.

The Christmas that the brothers received bikes far surpassed previous gifts of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform for Paul and a U.S. Army outfit for Bob. 

Looking good, Leah and Lestell

Leah Zapalac Tietjen of Rutersville, Texas, has never forgotten the Christmas when she was about 10 years old. She made weekly shopping trips to Jacob’s Grocery in La Grange with her parents, Lester “Buddy” and Florice Zapalac, sister Lestell and younger brother Bubba. That December Leah stopped dead in her tracks.

Sisters Lestell (left) and Leah Zapalac (right) smile for their 1956-57 pictures
at St. John’s Parochial School in Fayetteville, Texas. 

It was love at first sight!

Leah was dazzled

On display was the most extraordinary doll Leah had ever seen. Wrapped in a cellophane covered box, the beautiful blonde was almost as big as she was! On the way home, Leah could talk of little else.  

She couldn’t wait to go to Jacob’s again.  

One Christmas when the Zapalac family was shopping at Jacob’s Grocery in La Grange, Leah saw the doll of her dreams.

The next time the family went to the store, however, Leah was greatly disappointed. The doll, the only one of its kind on display, was gone. 

But you guessed it: when the children opened their presents on Christmas morning, that big doll was Leah’s gift! She has never forgotten her excitement and the fun she had playing with it.

Tradition, tradition, tradition

For Leah’s sister, Lestell Zapalac Villanueva of Richmond, Texas, Christmas memories center more on family traditions rather than a certain gift.

“At the home of my maternal great-grandparents, William and Hedwig Mennike of La Grange, we all took part in decorating a live Christmas tree. We strung popcorn and put silver icicles on the branches.

“Our great-grandmother Mennike would wrap clear pieces of hard candy to hang on the tree. We always had lots of that old-time Christmas hard candy that resembled colored ribbons, too,” Lestell recalls.

Lestell Zapalac Villanueva vividly recalls decorating a native cedar Christmas tree in
the parlor of her maternal great-grandparents on North Main Street in La Grange, Texas.

The Mennike Christmas tree was placed in front of the long window that faced the cedar tree in the front yard.

However, that wasn’t the only tree in the Mennike home.

“As you entered, there was a small plastic tree on the small corner table in the foyer that was only decorated with colored gumdrops,” Lestell says. 

Back to the present

A couple of years ago, when the Zapalac sisters were reminiscing about Christmas, Lestell asked Leah if she remembered the gumdrop tree at their great-grandparents’ house. 

“Well, of course, she did,” Lestell adds, “and Leah happened to have one decorated with gumdrops at their shop in Rutersville! Can you believe you can still order those trees from the Vermont Country Store catalog?

“I was fascinated so lo and behold, Leah ordered one for me. I put it up at Christmas for the first time last year. It was decked with green and red gumdrops! After Christmas, we took them off and ate them.”

Read On, Elaine

The very best Christmas present I ever received was after I turned eight years old. Earlier that year I was forced to stay home from school for three weeks because I had chickenpox.

I’ve been fascinated with stories as far back as I can remember.

Not only was I physically miserable from itching, but I also was bored stiff. My parents’ rule was that the TV at our house was never turned on during the daytime. Even suffering with chickenpox wasn’t considered reason enough to deviate from that edict.

Although my teachers and school friends sent home some books, I had already read and reread them. Also, I’d practically memorized all the stories in the meager book collection under my bed.       

Misery seeks a diversion

Desperate, I wandered in to look at my sister Shirley’s bookshelf. There I found several Nancy Drew mysteries and flipped through one. Although I wasn’t reading books as difficult as that yet, I had endless hours to fill so I took it back to bed with me. When Mom came upstairs to check on me, she raised an eyebrow at the book in my hands but didn’t say anything.

By the next day, I was thoroughly hooked and bored no more. The adventures of Nancy Drew, my first heroine, filled my days and evenings until Mom turned off the light. When I went back to school, I was still talking about Nancy Drew.

At any opportunity, I quoted passages from “The Secret of the Old Clock,” “The Hidden Staircase” and “The Secret of Red Gate Farm” like an experienced book reviewer.

Unfortunately, those three were the only Nancy Drew books I could get my hands on. Instead of a dedicated library at our school, each classroom offered only a couple of shelves of well-worn books.  

A life-changing present

Then Christmas morning came. The big, heavy-looking gift sitting beside the tree had my name on it and the tag identified it as being from my sister. Unable to guess what it was, I was practically giddy with anticipation. Shirley always gave awesome gifts.

Finally, it was my turn to open a present and Shirley’s was my first choice. Careful to save the paper for the following year, I gently loosened the tape and stripped it off. The outside of the box offered no hints as to its contents.

Next, I tugged at the tape holding the flaps closed. When I finally opened the box and removed a sheet of brown paper sitting on top, I was speechless. I am quite sure I must have screamed with delight.

Almost too good to be true

The box was filled with books and not just any old books.

Shirley had visited a used bookstore named Jaffe’s in east Calgary where she must have bought every single gently-used Nancy Drew book on the shelf. They were all mine now.

At the time, I didn’t realize that these fictional mysteries were written under the pen name Carolyn Keene and dated back to the 1940s and 1950s. Rather than a picture of Nancy that was featured on later releases, these books had dark solid color covers with a silhouette of the teenage sleuth holding a magnifying glass.

Heaven, I was in heaven! No gift could have pleased me more. The remainder of the Christmas holidays passed in a delightful blur of Nancy Drew’s adventures. I powered through half the box by the time I returned to school in January.

I savored every single volume.

This holiday season, I’m going to reread “The Clue in the Crumbling Wall.” Then I will give Shirley a call and thank her again for my best Christmas gift ever.

New Nancy Drew titles were released regularly between 1930 and 2003. Although many different authors wrote under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, the name on every single book cover, the entire series delighted generations of girls like me.

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Elaine Thomas
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