Over the course of 24 hours in 2011, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) fielded 102,000 phone calls from people around the world who were eager to know the exact position of Santa — and his reindeer — as they circumnavigated the globe. A million people followed St. Nick’s progress on Facebook, and another 100,000 or so tracked the journey on Twitter.
How did our leading air defense agency, a Cold War mammoth, end up in the Santa tracking business? It began in 1955, when a Sears ad with a typo ran in a Colorado Springs newspaper. The ad urged kids to give Saint Nick a phone call, but instead of listing the store’s number, it gave a secret hotline number connecting to NORAD’s command center (at the time, NORAD was called the Continental Air Defense Command, or CONAD).
On watch that night was a no-nonsense commander named Col. Harry Shoup. Shoup’s grown children — Terri Van Keuren, Rick Shoup and Pam Farrell — told StoryCorps about how he began the tradition that continues to this day…
Terri remembers her dad had two phones on his desk, including a red one. “Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number,” she says.
“This was the ’50s, this was the Cold War, and he would have been the first one to know if there was an attack on the United States,” Rick says.
The red phone rang one day in December 1955, and Shoup answered it, Pam says. “And then there was a small voice that just asked, ‘Is this Santa Claus?’ ”
His children remember Shoup as straightlaced and disciplined, and he was annoyed and upset by the call and thought it was a joke — but then, Terri says, the little voice started crying.
“And dad realized that it wasn’t a joke,” her sister says. “So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho’d and asked if he had been a good boy and, ‘May I talk to your 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. And they had children calling one after another, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus.”
It’s a sweet story. Listen to the whole thing below, via NPR — it only runs three minutes.