Few things in this world will reaffirm your holiday spirit faster than watching a dozen or so uniformed service people cover a room in Christmas wrapping. Also on that short list, it so happens, is spotting one of the aforementioned troops hand-feed an overzealous and noticeably plump squirrel who's anxiously scratching on the door to get in. It's a strangely Snow White-esque moment that unfolds minutes after we set up our gear in the conference room of the Leadership Development Center -- a drab, unassuming office space in the middle of Colorado Springs' Peterson Air Force Base that serves as a training facility for 11 months out of the year. But now, in early December, there's a transformation occurring, as men and women in various shades of camouflage paper the space with Christmas spirit in record time.
For one month a year, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) converts this area into holiday central for NORAD's Santa Tracker, a half-century-old program that has become a thing of legend -- a curious juxtaposition of warfare preparedness and storybook magic. It's one that, somehow fittingly, is rooted in a mistake -- a phone number misprinted in a 1955 Sears catalog, prompting local children to call Santa's "private number." Those calls from excited boys and girls were routed, the legend goes, to the big red phone in the war room of NORAD's predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), where quick-thinking Col. Harry Shoup asked his troops to play along. Now, 57 years later, it's a massive undertaking, as volunteers in military garb and Santa hats answer calls from children in hundreds of countries.