Tracking Santa

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Each Christmas Eve people all over the world will log on to the official Santa Tracker to follow his progress through U.S. military radar. I remeber the local NBC station would break in with updates on Santa’s location. As a kid, I always thought it was so cool. Tracking Santa all started in 1955, with a misprint in a Colorado Springs newspaper and a call to Col. Harry Shoup’s secret hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, now known as NORAD.

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The Santa Tracker tradition started with this Sears ad, which instructed children to call Santa on what turned out to be a secret military hotline. Kids today can call 1-877 HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) to talk to NORAD staff about Santa’s exact location.

Shoup’s children, Terri Van Keuren, Rick Shoup, and Pam Farrell, recently visited StoryCorps to talk about how the tradition began. Col. Shout had two phones on his desk, one was the “red” phone that only Shoup and a four-star general at the Pentagon had the number. Of course, this was the 1950s during the height of the Cold War. Shoup was the first line of defense against a nuclear attack.

The red phone rang one day in December 1955, and Shoup answered it. On the line was a small voice that asked “Is this Santa Claus?” Shoup was a serious, disciplined, and straight-laced colonel and was immediately annoyed at the call, thinking it was a joke. Then the little voice began to cry, Shoup realized it wasn’t a joke. So, Shoup went into Santa mode. He talked to the young boy, said a few “HO-HO-HOs” and asked if he’d been a good boy this year. Then Col. Shoup asked to speak to the boys mother. And the mother got on and said, ‘You haven’t seen the paper yet? There’s a phone number to call Santa. It’s in the Sears ad.’ Dad looked it up, and there it was, his red phone number.

That was the first of many phone calls that the Continental Air Defense Command received on the red phone. Shoup decided to assign a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus. It became a big joke at the command center. Col. Harry Shoup came to be known as the “Santa Colonel.”

The airmen had a large glass board with the United States and Canada on it so that they could track airplanes in the skies. On Christmas Eve of 1955, when Shoup walked in, there was a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole. Shoup asked, “What is that?” The airmen replied, ‘Colonel, we’re sorry. We were just making a joke. Do you want us to take that down?’ Shoup looked at it for a while, and next thing you know, he had called the radio station and had said, ‘This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.’ Well, the radio stations would call him like every hour and ask, “Where’s Santa now?”

Later in life, Shoup got letters from all over the world, people saying, ‘Thank you, Colonel,’ for having a sense of humor. And in his 90s, he would carry those letters around with him in a briefcase that had a lock on it like it was top-secret information. The letters were important to him. He had been an important man for America’s defense in the Cold War, but he was also known as Colonel Santa.

Col. Shoup died in 2009. How many of you have fond memories of tracking Santa all thanks to this straight-laced military man who turned out to have a good-natured sense of humor?

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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