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SANTA TRACKERS.ORG.

Each December, North American Aerospace Defense Command's tracking facilities in Colorado are abuzz as volunteer airmen entertain a room full of giddy kids on a speakerphone.

One connection is so clear that service members hear the kids gasp collectively at one word: Santa.

In a 45-year tradition, North Americans nurture the world's perception of Santa during his busy Christmas season, tracking his journey on radar and telling everyone about it, live and on the Web.

The original anti-hero in this tender tale is an airman -- a tough guy with a big heart. If Arnold Schwarzenegger needed a military consultant to beef up his tough guy characters, Col. Harry Shoup would have been the authentic person.

In 1955, America's Air Force was eight years old. The Cold War was under way, and NORAD did not exist. Its top-secret predecessor -- Continental Air Defense Command -- was at Ent Air Force Base in downtown Colorado Springs.

Colonel Shoup's commander was Gen. Earle Partridge, and the colonel would phone him with unidentified aircraft warnings from his position as director of the command's combat operations center. The general would, in turn, phone Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, leader of the Strategic Air Command and its nuclear forces.

The colonel tore through his headquarters' lot on a motor scooter to save steps around his blockhouse, referred to as the "Ulcer Palace." It was described by a Pennsylvania reporter in 1955 as a windowless, three-story "restricted area of restricted areas."

It was an exciting time to be an airman, but after four years on the job, pressure from the mission tempo wore ulcers in Colonel Shoup's stomach, He had two-thirds of it removed.

But the ghosts of Christmases past were about to give the fighter pilot and college football player from Pennsylvania three moments to be the man who put people in touch with Santa's wheareabouts.

MOMENT ONE: He always went to the office at 7 a.m. because he briefed his superiors at 8 a.m. The routine was shattered on Dec. 3, 1955, when the "red" phone rang alarmingly early. The colonel answered it, "Yes Sir," and heard a kid firing off his Christmas list.

The intense colonel was not in the mood to play games. So he glared at the seven lieutenant colonels working for him.

"Boy! If any of them are smiling, I'm going to nail 'em,'" he remembers thinking. "I was a known hard-ass. I took our mission seriously. Our annual phone bill was $22 million."

The colonel ended his chat with the boy. "'May I speak to your mommy?' he asked.

"Yes, but will you bring her a new refrigerator?" the lad replied.

"Yeah," the colonel said.

Realizing her son hadn't hit it off with the Jolly Old Man, the mom proved the number was advertised as Sears and Roebuck's hotline to Santa. Public affairs at Ent caught wind of the boo-boo. But until Mountain Bell changed the hush-hush number, the phone rang off the hook.

"We had fun with it," the colonel said.

MOMENT TWO: When he walked into the command center on Christmas Eve, 1955, someone had drawn a flying Santa on the map for unidentified aircraft. Colonel Shoup went soft -- again -- and let it stand. Then he woke his public affairs officer with a midnight task: Advise all wire services the command was aiding Santa's flight into "Commie territory." Col. Barney Oldfield alerted the media.

MOMENT THREE: In early 1956, defense officials relaxed the ban on publicizing the compound. The general's public affairs people thought the Santa program was a good idea and wanted to set up a special telephone line to handle the calls they knew would come. But Colonel Shoup opposed it. Colonel Oldfield asked to talk to him on Christmas Eve.

"Barney I told you, I don't want you in this building," Colonel Shoup said.

But Colonel Oldfield countered that United Press International and Associated Press reporters had called to ask where Santa was.

"I said, 'Oh no, not again.' That started it," Colonel Shoup said. "The press sent a photographer to the house, and my kids got excited. It got bigger every year [as more people found out about it]. The Cold War had us all uptight.

"Now I can think of the Santa program as part of the magic of Christmas. As long as you have kids, there will be interest."

So the command set up the special line for Santa calls that exists today. In 1957, NORAD took over the program.

Santa goes dot--org

By using electronic technologies -- such as old tapes and records, Internet or full-motion video on CD-ROMS -- the media end of the NORAD program has been splashy.

The program grabbed public attention with 1 million hits in 1997 during its Internet debut. The Web effort had 80 million hits in 1998 and inspired 25,000 phone calls. The core of hits and media interest is in Japan, where Santa's been a known western import for more than 100 years.

Since Korean Web fans adore Santa, NORAD may add that language, too, said Canadian Forces Maj. Jamie Robertson, deputy director of public affairs at NORAD.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said the Santa site "is pretty slick. All this is done free to the taxpayer and free to the government by organizations working with NORAD."

Major Robertson was the man who put Santa online. "The site is the jewel in the crown of a tradition that predates the command," he said.

Colonel Shoup, now 82, admires the major's work. But he wants to go one step further and launch the same opportunity around Russia's Orthodox Christmas season, celebrated Jan. 6.

"That would be fascinating," he said.
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Author:Dendy, John B.
Publication:Airman
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Words:944
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