I heard a great story on Mike Rowe’s Facebook channel this morning, and it was too good to keep to myself. And yes, this is the same Mike you might know from the “Dirty Jobs” television program. It’s a Christmas story, a couple of days late, that Baby Boomers and their descendents will like.
The date was December 1955. I was a wee tyke, a babe in arms, at an uneasy time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were locking horns in the earlier stages of the Cold War. Things were tense.
Col. Harry Shoup’s job at the North American Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs was to watch for incoming Soviet nuclear bombers which would fly over the North Pole on their way to targeted American cities. A polar map etched on a plexiglass panel and a red phone were standard equipment in his office.
Shoup and his subordinates always prayed that the red phone would never ring. Meanwhile, he and his staff nursed their stress-induced headaches, indigestion and high blood pressure. The colonel, as Air Force colonels tend to be, was something of a grumpy curmudgeon.
Who could blame him?
So, when the red phone rang one December day, the colonel was understandably gruff with a small girl on the other end of the line.
”Young lady, who is this and what do you want?” he barked, suspecting an elaborate prank.
”I just told you. My name is Sally Jenkins and I want a bicycle, some rollers skates and a hoola hoop.”
Military men of Shoup’s ilk are trained to recover their cool while under stress. He lowered his voice and belted out a respectable, “Ho, ho, ho!”
Naturally, he ordered somebody on staff to find out what the heck was going on. Their research revealed that the local Sears store had run an ad in the local newspaper touting its Santa Line. Small children could be hoodwinked into thinking that they were talking to the Big Guy himself by calling the number.
That was a great idea, but there was one small problem. There was a typo, and two numerals in the hotline number had been transposed. Calling this number made the scary red phone ring, and ring, and ring.
Shoup stayed on the phone, and in character, for several hours that night and for several nights to come. A paper cutout of Santa and his reindeer was taped to the plexiglass screen by some errant elf. The colonel heard hopeful requests for baseball bats, sleds and what have you, chatted with unknown parents and generally had the best nights of his military career.
Of course, the story hit the Rocky Mountain Times newspaper, and other media outlets picked it up. The fortuitous mistake took on a life of its own and became a Christmas tradition, with a little help from NORAD.
Television and radio stations still feature NORAD’s tracking of Santa’s progress across the skies. You can even track him online in real time if you visit the NORAD special Christmas page, complete with Santa’s Village. You might think of it as a cute bit of hokum from a bygone time.
But there is something about the story that makes me smile. Like Mel Brooks’ ridicule of Nazis, NORAD’s annual Santa tracking ranks near the top of the Laugh at the Bogeyman List.
What else belongs on that list? My daughter and I still chuckle about my spraying her room and closet with air freshener every night when she was a little girl. I always told her it was monster repellent. The poor child believed me for years until she caught on and told me that I was a bad person.
But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. One of my grandsons told me that his mother did the same thing when he was toddler.
So, why do I tell these whimsical stories from time to time? I think that they are a necessary antidote against too much rationalism and reason. Sure, logic and science have improved the lot of the human race in the past 200 years, but we are all, at heart, small children who like a good story.
Sometime in the misty distant future, the Cold War will have faded into nothing more than a scary story. But just as Good King Wenceslaus is celebrated in a Christmas carol for helping a poor man carrying fuel, I hope that Colonel “Santa” Shoup receives his own commemorative song for scaring away the nuclear bogey man for a few nights one dark Christmas.