NORAD's Santa Tracker began with a typo and a good sport
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Time now for StoryCorps. This Christmas Eve, people all over the world will log on to the official Santa Tracker to follow his progress on U.S. military radar. The tradition started in 1955 thanks to a misprint in a Colorado Springs newspaper that led to a telephone call to Colonel Harry Shoup. He was manning the secret hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, now known as NORAD. Colonel Shoup's children, Terri, Rick and Pam, talked about what happened for StoryCorps.
TERRI VAN KEUREN: I remember two phones on his desk. One was this red phone. Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number.
COLONEL HARRY SHOUP: This was the '50s. This was the Cold War. And he would've been the first one to know if there was an attack on the United States.
PAMELA FARRELL: So first couple weeks of December in 1955, dad was at the office, and the red phone rang. He answered it. This Colonel Shoup. And then there was a small voice that just asked, is this Santa Claus?
SHOUP: Dad was very straight-laced, very disciplined.
KEUREN: He was annoyed.
FARRELL: He was upset.
SHOUP: He thought it was a joke.
KEUREN: And so now the little voice is crying.
FARRELL: And dad realized that it wasn't a joke. So he'd talk to him, ho-ho-hoed 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 airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus.
KEUREN: It got to be a big joke at the command center. You know, the old man's really flipped his lid this time. We're answering Santa calls.
FARRELL: The airmen had this big glass board with the United States on it and Canada. And when airplanes would come in, they would track them.
SHOUP: And Christmas Eve of 1955, when dad walked in, there was a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole.
KEUREN: Dad said, what is that? They said, Colonel, we're sorry. We were just making a joke. Do you want us to take that down? Dad looked at it for a while. And next thing you know, dad had called the radio station and had said, this is the commander of 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 say, where's Santa now? And later in life, he got letters from all over the world - people saying thank you, Colonel, for having, you know, this 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. You know, he was an important guy. But this is the thing he's known for.
SHOUP: It's probably the thing he was proudest of, too.
KEUREN: Oh, I'm sure it was, yeah.
MONTAGNE: That's Terri Van Keuren with her siblings Richard Shoup and Pamela Farrell. They remembered their dad, Colonel Harry Shoup, at StoryCorps in Castle Rock, Colorado. Their conversation will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. And you can track Santa at noradsanta.org.
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