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St. Nick Has a Hip Pick for Jingling All the Way: Global Positioning Device

December 23, 1996|PAUL KARON

He knows, the song informs us, when you've been naughty. He knows when you've been nice. But Santa Claus, the world's leading flying sleigh driver, also knows whereof the pitfalls of solo air travel, and so, checking into a West Hollywood hotel for the local leg of a pre-holiday publicity trip, Claus immediately tells the concierge to send a portable humidifier to his room.

"I hate to get that dry thing going on in my sinuses," he explains. "Not at this time of year."

In his public manifestation, Claus still cuts an old-fashioned figure in crimson suit and black patent leather boots. But relaxing in the Art Deco privacy of his hotel suite, where he is meeting with reporters to promote his Christmas tour, "Gift!," the famous maker and checker of lists reveals a modern side not typically associated with the traditional Santa image.

In fact, Claus wryly describes himself as a "gadget addict" and "irremediable tinkerer," who if not for his current profession, might have been an auto mechanic.

What's Claus' favorite new toy? Answering this question, the patron saint of children and retailers everywhere does not pause for a moment. "That would have to be my GPS unit." He was referring to the global position system--a device that uses signals from orbiting satellites to figure its operator's precise location on the surface of the planet, within a few meters, and the exact direction to any other place.

It works no matter what kind of inclement weather and high winds Claus and his reindeer must fly through. Even after years of plying the international chimney-to-chimney routes, it seems, Claus is still at the mercy of the same crosswinds, head winds and tail winds capable of blowing far larger aircraft off course.

"We're talking crosswinds in the jet stream that exceed 100 knots," Claus says. "It is not a sleigh-friendly environment up there."

The global positioning system is a worldwide navigation system built by the U.S. Defense Department, but available for use by civilian sailors, airplane pilots, backpackers or anyone else who needs to know their exact location but doesn't have an easy way to find out. The system's two dozen satellites send out radio signals with their position and exact time; those signals are picked up by the GPS receivers, which then easily compute their exact location.

Claus' first experience with the portable global positioning devices, in 1994, was disappointing, to put it mildly.

He unwrapped the new unit as soon as he got his sleigh airborne, but couldn't turn it on. "Who would have thought batteries weren't included?" muttered Claus, recalling the scene. "That to me is just crazy."

The next year, however, he remembered to bring sufficient batteries--six AAs last about four hours--and navigated his entire trip with the Lowrance AirMap GPS.

The GPS device isn't Claus' first brush with the high-tech world. About 10 years ago, he installed a new collision avoidance radar system on the sleigh.

But what about Claus' own Christmas wish list? What do you get the patron saint who gives everything?

"In my line, the manufacturer reps see to it that I get a lot of stuff for free," Claus says. "But if I had to choose, I'd go for one of those electric pepper grinders with the built-in light."

Freelance writer Paul Karon can be reached via e-mail at pkaron@pacbell.net

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