PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AP) — Most of the thousands of children who call the annual Santa-tracking operation at a Colorado Air Force Base on Christmas Eve ask the usual questions: "Where's Santa, and when will he get here?"
So volunteer Sara Berghoff was caught off-guard Monday when a child called to see if Santa could be especially kind this year to the families affected by the Connecticut school shooting.
"I'm from Newtown, Connecticut, where the shooting was," she remembers the child asking. "Is it possible that Santa can bring extra presents so I can deliver them to the families that lost kids?"
Sara, just 13 herself, was surprised but gathered her thoughts quickly. "If I can get ahold of him, I'll try to get the message to him," she told the child.
Sara was one of hundreds of volunteers at NORAD Tracks Santa who answered more than 88,000 calls by Monday evening, program spokeswoman Marisa Novobilski said.
First lady Michelle Obama, who is spending the holidays with her family in Hawaii, also joined in answering calls as she has in recent years. She spent about 30 minutes talking with children from across the country.
The calls into NORAD this year were on pace to exceed last year's record of 107,000.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint U.S.-Canada command responsible for protecting the skies over both nations, tracks Santa from its home at Peterson Air Force Base.
NORAD and its predecessor have been fielding Christmas Eve phone calls from children — and a few adults — since 1955. That's when a newspaper ad listed the wrong phone number for kids to call Santa. Callers ended up getting the Continental Air Defense Command, which later became NORAD. CONAD commanders played along, and the ritual has been repeated every year since.
After 57 years, NORAD can predict what most kids will ask. Its 11-page playbook for volunteers includes a list of nearly 20 questions and answers, including how old is Santa (at least 16 centuries) and has Santa ever crashed into anything (no).
But kids still manage to ask the unexpected, including, "Does Santa leave presents for dogs?"
A sampling of anecdotes from the program this year:
THE REAL DEAL: A young boy called to ask if Santa was real.
Air Force Maj. Jamie Humphries, who took the call, said, "I'm 37 years old, and I believe in Santa, and if you believe in him as well, then he must be real."
The boy turned from the phone and yelled to others in the room, "I told you guys he was real!"
DON'T WORRY, HE'LL FIND YOU: Glenn Barr took a call from a 10-year-old who wasn't sure if he would be sleeping at his mom's house or his dad's and was worried about whether Santa would find him.
"I told him Santa would know where he was and not to worry," Barr said.
Another child asked if he was on the nice list or the naughty list.
"That's a closely guarded secret, and only Santa knows," Barr replied.
TOYS IN HEAVEN: A young boy who called from Missouri asked when Santa would drop off toys in heaven.
His mother got on the line and explained to Jennifer Eckels, who took the call, that the boy's younger sister died this year.
"He kept saying 'in heaven,'" Eckels said. She told him, "I think Santa headed there first thing."
BEST OF: Choice questions and comments wound up posted on a flip chart.
"Big sister wanted to add her 3-year-old brother to the naughty list," one read.
"Are there police elves?" said another.
"How much to adopt one of Santa's reindeer?"
INTERNATIONAL FLAVOR: NORAD got calls from 220 countries and territories last year, and non-English-speakers called this year as well.
Volunteers who speak other languages get green Santa hats and a placard listing their languages so organizers can find them quickly.
"Need a Spanish speaker!" one organizer called as he rushed out of one of three phone rooms.
HE KNOWS WHEN YOU'RE AWAKE: At NORAD's suggestion, volunteers often tell callers that Santa won't drop off the presents until all the kids in the home are asleep.
"Ohhhhhhh," said an 8-year-old from Illinois, as if trying to digest a brand-new fact.
"I'm going to be asleep by 4 o'clock," said a child from Virginia.
"Thank you so much for that information," said a grateful mom from Michigan.
CHRISTMAS EVE IN AFGHANISTAN: Five U.S. service personnel answered calls from Afghanistan for about 90 minutes through a conferencing hookup.
"They had a great time," said Novobilski, the program spokeswoman.
NORAD wanted to set up a call center in Afghanistan but that proved too complex, she said.
HEY, MR. ELF: "Mr. Elf," said one caller, "This is Adam, and I've been really good this year."
FOR GEARHEADS: For people who want to know the specs of Santa's sleigh, NORAD offers a trove of tidbits, including:
Weight at takeoff: 75,000 GD (gumdrops).
Propulsion: 9 RP (reindeer power).
Fuel: Hay, oats and carrots (for reindeer).
Track Santa online at http://www.noradsanta.org/
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