One of my favorite Christmas stories is as improbable as it is inspiring. I suppose many of the classic Christmas stories all have that in common. But this particular story, unlike many of the holiday tales we watch on television, is true. There would be no story if it had been for one man’s determination to turn a bad situation into a positive.
We could all benefit these days from a healthy dose of that attitude.
The story begins back in early December of 1955. As usual, Colonel Harry Shoup arrived that morning at his command post at 7 a.m. to prepare briefings for his superior officers. Col. Shoup was a no-nonsense, self-described “hard ass” who took his duties as director of combat operations at the top-secret Continental Air Defense Command seriously. The facility was situated in a bleak, windowless building Shoup referred to as the “Ulcer Palace,” located on the Ent Air Force base in Colorado Springs. Not far away, construction had begun earlier that year on the Air Force Academy approved the year before. The fledgling Air Force was just 8 years old, and the CONAD defense command, predecessor to NORAD, was engaged in the deadly serious business of identifying and tracking possible missile attacks.
On Shoup’s desk sat the ominous red phone. If that phone rang, it was either the Pentagon or CONAD’s commanding officer, four-star Gen. Earle Partridge calling. That phone never rang with good news.
There are several versions of what happened that cold December morning. They vary slightly in the details, but not in the main. The one I like best is the one given by Col. Shoup himself in an interview not long before his death in March of 2009. According to Shoup, the red phone rang that morning and he fully expected it to be Gen. Partridge or the Pentagon calling about a situation. So he answered quickly, identified himself, and waited for a response. Hearing nothing, he asked if the general could “read me all right.”
A small voice replied, “Are you really Santa Claus?” Shoup couldn’t help but smile at this point in the interview, but at the time he glared at his staff, silently vowing to make someone's life miserable once he found out who the prankster was.
“Would you repeat that please?” asked Shoup.
Again the small voice replied, “Are you really Santa Claus?”
Shoup realized that there was some problem with the phones. So he played along with the little girl and pretended to be Santa Claus. After speaking with the girl’s mother, he confirmed that the local Sears store had placed an ad in the Colorado Springs Gazette for kids to call Santa and talk to him on his private line. The phone number in the ad was off by one digit. For the next couple of hours, Shoup and his staff answered calls and played Santa until Mountain Bell was able to get the calls re-routed.
Shoup admitted that they “had fun” that day answering calls and talking to the kids. It was a break from the normally serious business that gave the place its awful nickname.
Call it the Christmas spirit or whatever, but the events of that morning had a lingering effect on the usually dreary command headquarters. When the Colonel arrived at his post on Christmas Eve, one of the spotters had drawn Santa in his sleigh on the huge transparent map used to track unidentified aircraft. Instead of getting angry, Shoup had the public affairs officer issue a press release saying that CONAD was tracking Santa’s flight and assisting him in his flight into “Commie territory." The press picked up the story, and had it been today, we would have said it went viral.
The following year, defense officials dropped the ban on publicity for the command post. They liked the idea of tracking Santa and reporting his position to the news agencies. They also wanted to set up a special line to handle the calls asking about Santa. At first Col. Shoup was opposed to the idea. The Cold War had them all on edge. But that Christmas Eve, Public Affairs Officer Col. Barney Oldfield told him that UPI and AP had called asking about Santa’s whereabouts. The press had also sent people to the Shoup household, and his kids were all excited. Harry relented, and a tradition was born.
In 1957 CONAD became a joint operation with Canada, and the name was changed to NORAD. The Santa tracking program grew larger each year. Dozens of volunteers, with the aid of corporate sponsors, staff the phones and answer emails from excited kids all over the world, wondering when Santa will get to their house. In 1998, a website was launched to help kids all over the world track Santa. The site also includes Christmas games and puzzles for kids to play in the days before Christmas Eve when NORAD officially begins tracking Santa. Google, where Shoup’s granddaughter works, recently joined the effort to help track Santa in 3D using Google Earth. The website is now in eight languages and gets millions of hits each year.
Shoup had always been very proud of his legacy and the NORAD tradition. In the months before his death, Shoup took to carrying letters and emails from children in his briefcase as if they were the most important papers in the world. And to Shoup they were, for those letters embodied the magic of Christmas that he had helped preserve during the early days of the Cold War.
Thanks to the “Santa Colonel,” as Shoup was known, at least one day a year NORAD devotes a little time to keeping the magic of Christmas alive, proving, as Shoup said, “that we’re not all bad."