The countdown clock for Santa’s big ride is now ticking off fewer than five days, and just who is keeping track of this clock and this fantastic journey? NORAD, North American Aerospace Defense Command, that’s who. The organization responsible for securing the air sovereignty of the entire continent will track Santa Claus from when he first leaves his village at the North Pole and aims his flying reindeer-powered sleigh full of toys toward chimneys around the world.
NORAD functions around the clock, providing essential information about air security to the president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada. It utilizes a global network of satellites and sensors, ground-based and airborne radar and fighter jets to detect, intercept and engage any and all threats. And it tracks Santa.
This all started in 1955 when Sears & Roebuck ran an ad in a Colorado newspaper telling kids to call Santa on his private phone and to remember to visit him at the Sears Toyland. The ad seemed a good idea, but the phone number was misprinted by one digit, and calls rang through to the agency that would later be known as NORAD. And those calls didn’t go to just any line—they went straight to the infamous red phone.
Col. Harry Shoup, Director of Operations, was on duty when the first call came through. He and his staff were busy working when the red phone rang, and Col. Shoup knew that meant a call either from the Pentagon or a general in command.
He answered it according to protocol, and a little voice came through the line, saying, “Are you really Santa Claus?” Col. Shoup thought the call was a joke, and not a funny one, but he replied, “Could you repeat that, please?” “Are you really Santa Claus?” a little girl asked again.
The colonel thought quickly and answered, “Yes, I am. Have you been a good little girl?” He stayed on the line and had a chat with the child, talking about her long wish list and how she would leave food near the fireplace for Santa and his reindeer. She asked him how he managed such a long trip around the world, and Col. Shoup told her it was a secret. “That’s the magic of Christmas,” he said.
For each subsequent call, and there would be plenty, he instructed his staff to provide Santa’s coordinates using a system designed to monitor the Soviets. From then on, Shoup was known as the Santa Colonel, and NORAD would track Santa’s flight for children worldwide.
With the help of corporate sponsors, dozens of agency staff and their families volunteer to man the phones and answer emails, and their workload is steady. The project’s website receives millions of hits from around the world, and more than 70,000 hopeful children call during the holiday season.
We build ominous headquarters and develop highly trained personnel to staff global agencies all in the name of national defense. We spend billions of dollars annually to maintain one of the strongest and most efficient military systems in the world, and it’s not for nothing. Earth is a dangerous place to live, and without this investment, we would be vulnerable.
But in the midst of our saber rattling, it only takes the phone call of one small child to remind us why we bother with any of it. We don’t have a military, or even NORAD, because might carries any virtue of its own. We do it all so that individuals can lead their lives in peace.
That’s where there is virtue, in leading our individual lives; in working, playing, loving, falling, standing up, creating, sleeping in peace or even dreaming of Santa Claus. It’s this business of daily living that matters, with the hopes of one small child outweighing any defense plan, and I think it’s the only reason we need a military at all.
On that December day in 1955 when a little girl called a colonel hoping to speak to Santa Claus, she didn’t bring NORAD to its knees, but she did bring it back down to earth for awhile and reminded its personnel—and the rest of us—of what’s important. That might be just the magic of Christmas, but wouldn’t we be better off calling this a lesson learned year round?