[Advent Calendar 2013] The Santa Tracker

This is a re-post from last year's Advent Calendar, both because it's still relevant, and because it's one of my favorite stories ever.
Once upon a time, in a long-ago era known as "1955", the world was a dark and scary place. The Second World War was over but certainly not forgotten, and behind every addlepated political press conference lurked the spectre of those godless heathen Ruskies, who were just itching for an excuse to start a nuclear holocaust. There were no such things as the Beatles. Brylcream reigned supreme over maddeningly impractical haircuts. In order to telephone someone, you had to physically find a telephone, which was tethered to the base with a cord and to the wall with another cord, and it was the Official Property Of The Phone Company And Don't You Forget It. The moon landings were over a decade away, and the internet almost two. It was a frightening time.

The government felt it could do little about telephones and Brylcream, frankly, but it did have a thing or two to say about the Russians, and in 1955 most of those things were symbolized by CONAD, the Continental Air Defense branch of the United States Air Force. Headquartered in Colorado Springs -- a destination that was at the time surrounded by large amounts of defensible nothingness, with the occasional obnoxiously tall mountain -- CONAD's job, in those pre-ICBM days, was to fly around American airspace and keep an eye out for Soviet bombers wot might be aiming to drop unpleasant things on all our shiny cities. Eventually, America would realize that the Soviets were aware that the Earth was round and might come in from the north, and also that the Canadians were a lot like us except for that thing where they have the Queen round for tea every so often, and would partner up with the Canadian military to form NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense), but in 1955 that was still a few years away, and CONAD was still being run in-house from the bunker in Colorado.

In the CONAD bunker, there was a dedicated telephone. It was one of those telephones that you hoped would never ring. It was only supposed to ring for important things, and in 1955 there was a fair chance that what CONAD designated an important thing was imminent thermonuclear annihilation. So when the phone rang on Christmas Eve, 1955, Colonel Harry Shoup, the officer in charge of the bunker that night, was understandably not thrilled about picking it up.

But on the other end of the line, instead of the POTUS or a high-ranking general giving orders to deploy, there was only a little girl, asking the whereabouts of Santa Claus.

It took a few phone calls like this one to figure out what had happened. A local department store in Colorado Springs had published an ad in the paper, inviting kiddies to telephone in on Christmas Eve to find out where Santa was on his journey around the world. The ad exhorted them to make sure they got the number right, but evidently the printers didn't think this applied to them, because in fact they hadn't -- the number they published was one digit off, and by sheer stupid coincidence, it happened to ring directly into the unlisted hotline in CONAD HQ. The ad was already out, and the phone company in those days was monolithic and hadn't even heard of computers, so there was no ready way to change either the number the public had, or the number that rang into CONAD. Col. Shoup was in a pickle. There was nothing in the handbook about this. What to do?

In the end, Shoup just grabbed one of the junior personnel on duty that night, sat him down next to the radar screen and the phone, and told him to keep track of Santa for the children of Colorado Springs.

News of the Christmas incident, of course, promulgated up the ranks as these things always do, and miraculously, instead of court-martialing Shoup for misuse of government resources, the CONAD bigwigs thought it was a charming -- and media-friendly -- idea. CONAD changed to NORAD in 1958, and Harry Shoup passed away in 2009, but continues the practice of tracking Santa Claus on his journey around the world every Christmas Eve. Over the years, the telephone hotline has expanded to include thousands of volunteers, both active military personnel and civilians, answering calls about His Jolliness' journey, and has been augmented by email, web cams, mapping software, and even a Twitter feed. From time to time audio recordings of encounters with Santa have been declassified and released to the public; during the Cold War, these generally began as tense adventures, resolving only when the dedicated Air Force pilots made visual contact and realized they were tracking a friendly sleigh; these days, such risky business is avoided by giving Santa an honor escort of Canadian Air Force CF-18s for his trip across North American air space, and periodic 'wing waggles' from the USAF.

NORAD's Santa Tracker provides real-time Kringle-tracking updates in any of seven languages, starting at midnight along the International Date Line on Christmas Eve. This year, they have partnered with Microsoft and Bing!, with official mobile and tablet computing apps for Windows 8, Android, and iOS smartphones in addition to the online service. If you are of a more counterculture bent, in previous years NORAD has used Google Maps and Google Earth to do their tracking, and Google has crafted their own Santa Tracker with their accumulated experience, plus some help from the elves. Unlike NORAD, Google has decided to start at midnight UTC, so there is a bit of discontinuity there -- but on the other hand, Google also lets you do things like send an email/phone call from Santa (to anywhere, via email or G+, to North American phones only), and has a lot of fun clickable toys on the front page.

Comments