I promise my story is absolutely true. As fanciful and far-fetched as it may appear, you have my word that everything actually happened exactly two years ago today. That would be December 14, 2015. Between the chilly morning hours of 6 and 10 at my country property near the small village of Mattice in northwestern Ontario.
My dog Barclay and I were out just before dawn on our usual pre-breakfast walk in the stubbled corn fields surrounding our small cottage tucked in along the western bank of Thomas Creek. A light snow had fallen overnight and the temperature had dropped well below zero. The creek had shiny slivers of new ice forming around the rocks and deadfall branches along both banks. The air was still. Whispy-white smoke from our cabin’s woodstove rose lazily into a slowly brightening sky. Our breath was visible in misty clouds trailing behind as the crunching sound of our passing on the brittle snow announced our coming well in advance of our arrival. In short, it was a picture perfect setting for our stroll.
We were moving easily through the three small fields closest to the cottage, heading north toward about ten wooded acres we called The North Twenty. This was our woodlot. Before you ask, I must tell you that I have no idea why our furthest field was called North Twenty when it was really only ten. A former tenant of the cabin must have decided that the fields and bush lots looked like twenty acres give or take and just called it that only for convenience. Barclay and I have been out here each day for the last two weeks, felling selected hardwood trees that after Christmas I would start cutting into stove lengths with the splitter hung on the back of our old Deere tractor. Piled into bush cords, after three full seasons in the clearing, it will make ideal fuel for next year’s heating.
Barclay has never liked being on a lead. He prefers the zig-zag style of free-range exploring, suddenly heading off, nose to the ground, on unexpected expeditions, chasing down the scent of rabbits and weasels out foraging for winter food. Occasionally, Barclay will stop to lift a leg against a shrub, fence post or rock poking above the snow. It’s his daily ritual of marking his territory in the futile hope it will scare off the persistent silver fox with whom he unhappily shares our woodlot.
Barclay had just zigged off left headlong into a small cluster of white birch and cedar trees when I heard him wuff loudly. Three times in quick succession. Barclay’s wuff is not a full on bark, more like the canine equivalent of a human’s ‘what the hell is this?’ exclamation. Barclay rarely wuffs so I knew that something out of the ordinary had caught his attention. I followed his trail into the trees, calling his name.
I found Barclay standing rigidly alert on the far edge of the tree grove. His tail was straight out behind. His front right leg was off the ground as if I had caught him in mid-stalk. He was gazing intently out into the next field north at a small herd of deer that were quietly grazing on the corn bits and pieces that had fallen from the chute of the harvester just before Thanksgiving. The animals had to first scrape away the crusted snow with their front hooves, but all were hard at it.
The largest of the animals stopped grazing. Its large head was up, sniffing into the wind, clearly deciding if Barclay and I were a threat. This animal had a large antler rack which told me it had successfully survived many hunting seasons and was skilled at keeping the herd safe. Satisfied we were no threat, the magnificent animal went back to scraping in the snow.
But there was something odd about these animals. I moved slowly toward the leader. Close in, this group of twelve animals didn’t look like any deer I had seen in the area. Barclay, in that slow motion, stiff-legged manner hunting dogs use when stalking, moved silently and cautiously alongside me, always keeping his attention fully on the lead animal. When we were about twenty feet away, I realized that these were not deer. Incredibly, they all looked like extremely healthy specimens of reindeer, normally found in Canada’s far north. I’d just started to process the puzzle of Arctic reindeer being in a snow-covered field so far south when a deep voice from behind startled both Barclay and me.
“I know what you’re thinking and you’d be right, lad.” There was a delightful lilt to the voice.
Barclay and I both twirled to find a small, smiling man leaning against the rotting stump of an old birch tree.
“Those are prime specimens of northern reindeer. At the moment they’re all enjoying an unexpected early morning snack of corn nibbles and dried grass.”
The man was about four feet tall, dressed from hooded head to booted toe in what I immediately recognized as a child-sized, bright orange deep winter parka. Black thermal mittens and tan leather Sorel insulated boots finished off the look. All very outdoorsy for sure, but who on earth is this fellow? It was then I noticed the small logo on the breast pocket of the parka. It was the words ‘Team Santa’ stitched in alternating red and white letters beneath the stylized face of a smiling Santa.
As if reading my thoughts, the little fellow moved slowly toward me, his gloved hand outstretched in greeting.
“Hello. My name is Seamus O’Brogan. I live in North Pole Village and I’m the Senior Engineer of Mr Claus’ Experimental Projects and Logistical Support laboratory. I’m afraid, it’s in this capacity that you find me here this early December 14th morning, unexpectedly stranded in what I understand you call ‘The North Twenty.”
I must have been in shock as I only barely understood what this wee Seamus fellow was telling me, but he had taken my hand and was heartily shaking it. At the same time, his left gloved hand quickly slid into his parka jacket, bringing out a red-green biscuit which he offered to the full-on tail wagging Barclay.
Once again, Seamus appeared to read my spinning mind. He continued.
“What am I doing here, you may be wondering? Ay, lad, now that’s a story worth telling but we’ll be more comfortable if you come with me over to my temporary little shelter where I have some heat.”
Barclay and I followed him through the nearby trees, deeper into the bush and into a small clearing. A bright orange fly tent had been set up between two tall pines. Only about five feet off the ground at its peak, it was far too low for me but ideal for him. Some spruce boughs had been spread out beneath the fly and in the centre was a green metal device, about the size of a small cereal box.
“Come sit, lad. My heater will give us a wee bit of comfort while we talk.”
The cereal box gizmo was giving off quite a bit of heat but I could see no flame, no other heat source. Snow had melted around it for about six inches in all directions. Seamus saw me studying the heater with interest.
“Ah lad, you be wondering about that.” He nodded toward the metal box. “That’s another of my inventions. I call it the GloBox 2400. It’s still in the prototype stage but it’ll be ready to go with Santa by the 24th. That’s for sure.”
I noticed it was softly pulsing with an orange-red glow. “I’ve got it cranked up to the max, given my situation here,” said Seamus. He waved his small, heavily parka’d arms in a circle around him. But he offered no other explanation.
“Well, Don, me lad, what I’m about to tell you is highly classified.” He must have noticed my eyebrows arch at the mention of my name. Of course, I hadn’t told him my name, so he paused as if thinking about something for a few seconds, then he plunged on.
“As you will see in a few moments, you and Barclay have found yourselves in what could best be described as a most peculiar situation.” Seamus chuckled, scratched his nose, then carefully examined his glove. Satisfied, he continued.
Truth be told, we’ve been expecting you both. From the very moment you left your cabin over there on Thomas Creek, we’ve been tracking you from up there.”
He pointed upward and off toward the right in the direction of the moon hovering low on the horizon.
“Sort of like satellite tracking but far more sophisticated, I’m pleased to say. We cannot be too careful with security these days given all of this.”
Again, he waved vaguely toward the reindeer and a nearby heavy cluster of trees and shrubs.
“I must ask you to swear to me that you will keep strictly confidential all that you will see and hear in the next hour or so. At some point this morning, we’ll need you to sign something official but for now, I’ll take you at your word. You promise?”
I still had absolutely no idea what was going on with Seamus and myself but nevertheless, I nodded toward him and put out my hand. We shook and both said ‘deal’ at exactly the same time.
Whereupon, Seamus got up, pulled his parka more tightly around him and beckoned me to follow him off in the direction of the reindeer. We entered into the centre of the herd, which promptly re-arranged themselves in a ragged semi-circle around us.
“You may have guessed already but just in case you haven’t, let me introduce you to Santa’s reindeer. Team, I would like you to meet Mr Herald and his dog Barclay.”
Pointing to each, in turn, Seamus proudly gave me the names we all have come to know. “Dasher. Dancer. Prancer. Vixen. Comet. Cupid. Donner. And Blitzen. And of course, you’ve already met Rudolph” he said, pointing to the large stag that had watched us earlier while he and the herd had been grazing. With the mention of their name, each reindeer would quickly lower its head almost like a bow, and extend their right hoof forward and tap the ground twice in greeting. Obviously, these were well-trained animals. There were three remaining animals that had not yet been introduced.
“We have three senior trainees with us today as well. Hudson. Bathurst. And Ellesmere. Santa named these guys after his favourite navigation points near the North Pole.” Seamus waited while each of the animals bowed and tapped the ground.
“Since all of this was to have been a straightforward long distance, night training flight, Santa wanted these boys to get in some practice just in case one of the regular nine came down with a cold on the 24th and couldn’t make the trip. But none of us ever expected all of this to happen. These boys will have quite the story to tell when they’re back home!”
Introductions now complete, Seamus pulled twelve carrots from his parka and went around the semi-circle, giving each animal his special treat and a friendly rub behind the ears. He turned toward Barclay and me and extended his arms as if in greeting.
“There’s something else you need to see over here before the Search and Rescue boys arrive.”
Back we went past his shelter, down a small winding foot and hoof-marked trail in the trees and then out onto a larger, much longer-than-wide clearing in the northernmost meadow I called Fox Den. At the end closest to us, sat a large, bright red sleigh.
It was a massive but sleek vehicle, about twenty feet long and maybe eight feet wide. Up front, there was a small cockpit with a number of gently flashing and scrolling LCD screens arrayed in a two-level console set before a large, moulded leather seat with massive armrests. At the end of each arm were what appeared to be a combination of four round push buttons and toggle switches. Immediately behind the cockpit was a small fibreglass covered area with numerous thin antenna poking up about six inches. Obviously, this was some sort of communication centre. In the remaining two-thirds of the sleigh was an empty cargo bay. Around the top edges was a line of small pulsing lights that changed colour. Beneath the entire superstructure was thin, rail-like runners curled up in front and extending flat about six feet out beyond the rear wall of the cargo bay.
On the side, beneath the cockpit, was the following inscription: SantaSled-01-X.
“It sure’s a beauty, eh?” offered Seamus, obvious pride in his voice.
“Me and my boys designed it ourselves with some help from NASA and a few private contractors. Absolute state of the art carbon fibre skin, super advanced avionics and communication gear, sophisticated heating elements, 3D cargo creation and delivery equipment linked by a high-frequency satellite to North Pole Control. We could have easily included an advanced propulsion system using quadra warp technology but Santa felt he had to stick with the nine reindeer for tradition’s sake, even though it cuts down our travel and delivery times considerably.” That’s when I noticed the leather harness lines studded with bells and now dark navigation lights, lying partially covered by the lightly falling snow.
Now as you can appreciate, I was having a hard time taking all of this in and trying to make sense of it. Intuitively, I knew I’d stumbled into one of the best kept, ultra-secret toy fulfilment and delivery systems in the world. But still, the question remained – what was all this super sophisticated equipment, the twelve reindeer and Seamus O’Brogan himself doing here at the top end of North Twenty?
“You’re wondering what’s going on here, eh?” Seamus asked with a chuckle in his voice. Looking more closely at him, I realized that he could be forty years old or easily two hundred and forty years old. It’s always hard to tell age with elves, I thought.
“I’m not an elf, lad. No, no, no. I’m an Irish leprechaun. Here’s the short version of me story. Fifteen years ago now, when the Irish economy started to tank, there wasn’t much call for us leprechauns to do our magic thing with villagers and kids. Lots of us were unemployed. It was hard times. Then Santa’s Human Resources Team came calling, looking for skilled labour and artisans to join his team at the North Pole. Me and fifteen others took Santa up on his generous offer and we began new lives there with his hundreds of Elves. It’s been a good life and Santa’s a fine fellow to work for but he can get cranky in the weeks leading up to Christmas.” Seamus gave a deep sigh followed by a discreet, soft chuckle.
“Well, as you know, the world population’s been growing wildly and as the global economy tanks, harder times have come to hundreds of thousands more folks all around the world. And human nature being what it is, regardless of your culture, people naturally turn to someone like Santa for at least one or two days a year. It’s a time when they can get some of their wishes answered and maybe feel safer and free from hunger for a bit.”
“On New Year’s day, 2015 Santa calls me into his office. ‘Seamus,’ he says, ‘I need some new technology in every way it’s possible to imagine so that I can get around in one night to everyone in the world who believes I will visit them. Work with our partners, contract with whomever you feel you need to but I need a super sled. It must still be pulled by Rudolph and the gang but it must meet all the demands of the travel, the logistics and our vastly expanded supply chain. Oh, Santa says, Seamus, I need it ready to go, absolutely foolproof by December 20th this year. Can you do it?”
By now Seamus and I were sitting in Santa’s sleigh and he was totally caught up in telling me the story. So Seamus recruited a top level team of specialists at the Pole and with a few encrypted phone calls, brought in some talent from NASA, Boeing, the EU, Israel and China. Then the sled project team set to work in the deepest of secrecy.
“Our team created many amazing innovations, installed and tested them on a completely re-designed Santa’s sleigh. Our team named the prototype sleigh ‘SantaSled 01’. We added an ‘X’ after the name to identify it as an experimental test vehicle. In fact,” – Seamus points this out with some pleasure – “it’s the very one we’re sitting in now.”
According to Seamus, as December 14th approached, only one final piece of navigation gear remained to be tested. Codenamed ‘SantaGuide 411’ or the ‘SG411’, this system is the most advanced satellite navigation and communication system ever developed by any nation in the world. Seamus and his team tested it successfully many times in their simulation lab at the North Pole. Several actual field tests of the 411 in the restricted North Pole airspace were successfully completed three weeks earlier with only a few minor glitches. Patches for the software were created and installed.
“This morning just after midnight our time, we launched from North Pole Control for our final long distance night trial south from the Pole to Galveston Texas and back. Yours truly was at the controls.”
“For the first hour of our flight, all went well for me and the twelve reindeer. We were being tracked by the International Space Station. Their encrypted tracking reports were transmitted to both North Pole Control and NORAD command buried deep within their famous mountain bunker in Colorado.”
“On the return leg of our flight, as we entered the frigid airspace over Sault Ste Marie in northern Ontario, SG411 inexplicably failed. SantaSled 01-X started gliding silently but falling rapidly toward earth. To save the sleigh, myself and the reindeer, I had to take manual control of the glide while the onboard nav systems continued to collapse around me one by one.”
Incredibly, and a testament to the skill, coolness and quick thinking of Seamus, he saw the long snowy meadow in North Twenty right at the last moment and brought the sled and team in fast over the trees and set it down hard but safe on the frozen corn stubble. While the sleigh disappeared from conventional radar, the Space Station’s laser geo-guidance system, targeted Seamus’ position, reported it to NORAD who immediately dispatched Search and Rescue Squadron 401 out of Canadian Forces Base Thunder Bay to lend assistance to Seamus and the downed sled.
“And that lad, is the quick version of me story,” said Seamus. Pulling back the cuff of his mitt, he glanced at a small luminous dial on a red band around his wrist. Looking toward the horizon, he observed calmly “They should be here any time now with a backup SG411 unit. Pre-flight, we store several of these units at bases along the flight path just in case something goes wrong…like happened tonight.”
As if on cue, the ‘wup,wup, wup’ sound of a helicopter moving at full speed echoed across the fields. Suddenly, a white painted machine rose up over the trees and raced toward us sitting in the downed sled.
“Ah, that my lad is an Apache AH-64 chopper. It’s a fast-attack platform from the Americans that we’ve converted into a rapid deploy S&R unit” observed Seamus with a pleased smile. “Those are very serious dudes in that machine, my friend. It won’t be long now.”
The Apache flared to a heavily mufflered but still noisy hover about one hundred yards from us, shifted slightly to the left, then gently settled down onto its skids. The port side door slid open and three crew, each in winter white flight gear, jumped from the chopper, hauling a box the size of a beer case out behind them and then, running low to the ground, approached the sled.
Seamus had jumped out and run over to greet them. Handshakes all around, a brief shouted conversation over the clatter of the helo’s idling jet engines and then all four darted back to where I was sitting in the sled.
All business now, Seamus made no introductions.
“You’ll have to move away and back from the sled while we work. It’s all ultra-secret stuff happening here. Please get out now!”
I scrambled quickly out and away from the sled, joining a quiet Barclay who was sitting over at the edge of the trees that hid Seamus’ shelter.
It took maybe twenty minutes for the S&R technical team to swap out the broken SG411 for the new one. When the team had finished, the leader removed a brown envelope from a breast pocket of his flight suit, handed it to Seamus, then turned and ran with the others toward the waiting Apache. Within moments, the helo was airborne at full throttle and had disappeared behind the jagged line of the nearby hills to the west toward Thunder Bay.
“Well, lad, we’re ready to get back home. But first, you’ll have to sign this Secrecy Act agreement. Two copies. One for you. One for me.” He handed me the document. The sun was up now so I was able to read the two pages of legalese. In brief, it said that I could not tell this story to anyone for two years. That is until December 14th, 2017. There was stuff in there about the Official Secrets Act, the stiff judicial penalties and possible imprisonment options for any breach of the terms of the agreement. I signed the forms with a stubby old pencil that Seamus had found in what I supposed was the equivalent of a glove compartment in the sled’s cockpit.
Papers signed, off we went to round up the twelve reindeer. Seamus hooked them up to the sled in an oddly spaced pattern that only he and the reindeer seemed to understand. Sitting in the cockpit, Seamus flipped a couple of switches, pulled on a traditional looking Santa hat that cleverly disguised a jet pilot’s type helmet beneath. Navigation lights winked on along the harness lines and the side of sled’s fuselage. The white strobe pulses clearly marked the profile of the sled and the team of reindeer strung out in front.
Seamus turned toward me. With a quick nod and a shout at Rudolph, the sled began to move rapidly down the field, lifting gracefully off over the trees and heading north into a quickly brightening sky.
I have not seen or heard from Seamus O’Brogan again.
So now I’ve told you my story. I swear it is true. I did not dream it. Nor did I make it up just for all the celebrity attention I know it will surely bring me when this tale becomes public.
One final question remains to be answered. Why did I have to wait two years before I could tell the story? I’ve decided that Santa, Seamus and their technology partners wanted to be certain that the SG411 operated perfectly that Christmas. Since there were no reports of Santa missing anyone on his worldwide rounds in 2015 nor again on Christmas eve 2016, I can only assume that all systems are still ‘go’ with SantaSled 01 and that the ‘X’ has been permanently removed.
Merry Christmas 2017 to everyone. I hope you enjoyed this quite incredible story. Oh, and please don’t forget to leave out some cookies and non-alcoholic eggnog for Santa this year!
I have had short fiction published in the US, Canada and the UK. My published stories can be found at www.donherald.blogspot.com.
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