Thursday, December 24, 2009

A NORAD Christmas

Christmas Moon 2007

I can't help it -- oh, I guess I could, but I don't want to -- Christmas is my favorite season. Somewhere around Halloween I come down with a serious case of "holiday fever" and don't recover until well after New Year's. Each holiday brings a spike in my temperature until, by December 25th, I feel more alive than at any other time of the year. It's as though I'm caught up in something that has a life of its own. A season of changes, a time for new birth, a time for starting over, and filling Life with mirth.

One particular Christmas Eve forces itself into my memory each year. It beg
an as most did when I was a child. Early in the evening, my parents and I gathered presents, bundled up against the cold, and drove to the home of my maternal grandmother, miles away in the city. We lived in the country and the city lights formed a dim halo about the crest of the hill that rose slowly from our front door. The night sky was clear and moonlight glittered on the newly fallen snow that coated the farms and wheat fields along our way.

My grandmother lived in a two story, white stuccoed survivor of the Roaring Twenties, with a huge arched window facing the street. In anticipation of our arrival, she kept the house dark except for the lights from her tree pouring through the window and onto the flagstone walk at its feet.

I had scarcely gotten out of the car when my maiden aunt burst breathlessly from the house. She had not-quite-flaming red hair, and when I think of her now, fire engines come to mind. My aunt displayed incredible energy in all she did and whenever a problem threatened to burn out of control in my life, she was always there with her "fire hose" to lend a hand. Sweeping me up in her arms, she asked, "Did you write your letter to Santa? Did you mail it in time?"

"Yes! Did you?"

"Oh, yes, I mailed mine a week ago!" she replied, her eyes bright with laughter.

Greeting my parents, she ushered us into the house, then rushed from lamp to light switch, flooding the old house with light. My aunt loved Christmas and spent days preparing for the holiday. The dining table would be laden to overflowing with cold cuts, marshmallow salad, peanut brittle, almond bark, and my favorite, spearmint ribbon candy. With carols playing on my grandmother's aging Telefunken stereo, a gift from her youngest bachelor-son, we visited, snacked, and opened presents.

Finally, my grandmother growing festively weary, we gathered our coats and stepped out into the night for a final glimpse of the stars before driving home. My aunt leaned down and whispered, as always, "Do you suppose this will be the night we see him? I'm listening for sleigh bells..."

The long drive home made me sleepy and I'm sure I must have dozed because the next thing I knew, my father was carrying me into the house. The hour was late, but we stayed up to watch the news and relax. I sipped hot chocolate and read the comic pages from the morning paper when my father nudged me.

"Listen to this!" he said.

I stopped reading and looked up as the announcer reported that an unidentified flying object had been sighted over the Arctic and NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, was tracking it. I became immediately excited because I loved science fiction and was certain it had to be an alien craft.

"Just wait," said my father, "there may be more."

Sure enough, moments later, the announcer interrupted the weather segment with an update. "NORAD reports the object sighted over the North Pole has been identified by Air Force jets based in Alaska. It is, in fact, Santa and his reindeer, and the pilots have been instructed to escort him safely into United States air space."

I looked at my father with what must have been absolute rapture. Not only did my aunt and I believe in Santa Claus, so did the Air Force -- more than that, they'd actually seen him! If I might have ordinarily had difficulty sleeping on Christmas Eve, you can be sure I had even more that night.

A long time has passed since I've spent a happy Christmas with my aunt and grandmother. Both of them are years gone and those evenings live in memory. Thankfully, however, some things don't change. After Christmas Eve candlelight church services, my wife, our children, the dogs, and I curl up with hot chocolate by the fire to watch the late news. When the announcer faithfully reminds us that NORAD has sighted a sleigh in the northern sky, the kids turn to face us with eyes like starlight and smiles even brighter.

And every year, once the house is quiet and the kids asleep, each one snuggling a well-loved dog, my wife and I step outside for a final glimpse of the stars, and we wonder, will this be the night...?

(Note to the reader: A NORAD Christmas was written in 1999, and has previously been read by only a few of my closest friends. It's based on a factual event that took place when I was young that I've never forgotten and hope I never will. The house, my aunt and grandmother, are real, of course, but many of the other details are fictional. Nevertheless, I hope it gives you a smile.)

(A NORAD Christmas, copyright 1999 by Patrick W. Conway, all rights reserved; Creative Commons image by Doblonaut via Flickr)
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