Sixty years ago, a newspaper in Colorado Springs made a typo on a Sears Roebuck advertisement. Sears was offering children the opportunity to call and talk to Santa Claus. Unfortunately, the number published in the ad wasn’t for Sears nor Santa — it was for the “red phone” at what would soon be known as NORAD. It was also the height of the Cold War, and thus the “red phone” ringing was not only serious but also terrifying.
No doubt heart rates increased and blood pressures spiked when that phone rang. It could well have meant the end of the world was nigh. But what was heard on the other end of the line was a child’s voice asking to speak to Santa Claus.
Or so the legend goes. The reality may have been a bit different. The number may have been misdialed rather than a misprint. And almost certainly it wasn’t the “red phone” that rang, as it likely wasn’t reachable through the normal telephone system.
Regardless, that was a scary time when nuclear annihilation seemed almost inevitable and that call was a serendipitous moment. A needed moment. It put up a happy face on a needed but frightening apparatus and it provided a relief from the threat of doom.
The tradition continues today. More than a thousand volunteers, most military and civilian employees of NORAD, handle more than 100,000 calls and emails from around the nation and around the globe in the roughly 24 hours of Santa’s ride around the world. The website, NORADsanta.org, is tracked by millions of parents and their children.
So now, 60 years on, we live in a scary world. It’s unfathomable to think that in 2015 people are shooting innocent people —people just like you and me — in workplaces, shopping malls and movie theaters. It is even more unfathomable that in 2015 there are people (and I’m using that term loosely) running around thinking that there could be some justification in beheading innocent people — and then providing it on video for the world to see their “accomplishments” in terror.
The opening credits should read, “Welcome to the 7th Century.”
Ours is a world that could use some serendipity, or, at least, some really good news.
At Christmastime, I walked around New York, America’s only megacity, a place where both outrageous success and heartbreaking failure are on display, looking for some good news. I saw it in the faces of children hoisted up on fathers’ shoulders looking at the beautiful, enormous Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center (my own grandson among them, despite that my shoulders are aging right along with the rest of my body). I saw it in the parents who, despite the trials and tribulations of the past decade, refuse to give in — they want nothing but a better world for their children. I saw the self-absorbed and those who care, but mostly the caring. Millions of people all in one place, one city, one nation; a place where I have to think 99 percent still have hope. They still believe.
To me, the good news is that the American spirit, although slapped around a bit, remains. If there is such a thing as American Exceptionalism, it certainly has its roots in the bottomless well of American optimism. As a nation — and I’m talking about us rather than politicians and their political games — we look for and find the bright side on even the darkest of days. We make solutions where none seem to be obvious at first glance. We create; we innovate; we believe in something greater than ourselves. Our nation is in no way threatened by second-tier status.
Other nations may lead us in overall lifestyle and other metrics, but we lead in so many ways that it is incalculable. Whether some nations or regions like it or not, the world cannot do without us. We are strong, we are generous, and we are endlessly willing to learn and re-invent ourselves to suit the times and the needs of the nation and the world.
That is not due exclusively to military or corporate power — it is due to us and the American spirit. We believe. I honestly think it is really that simple. I’ve traveled the world and have yet to find a place where optimism springs forth so widely, so fully, and so freely. Despite what you may have read lately, we are good people. We are a good nation. Serendipity happens here for a reason.
The year 2015 may go down in history as a year of dark days or it may simply be forgotten by history. It hasn’t been the best of times. But 2016 is dawning and with that new light of the morning comes new opportunities for America and the world. It will provide new opportunities for all of us. The New Year is like a do-over. We can and will do better this year because we have optimism; we learn; and we believe. We still make good things happen.
Happy New Year.