Happy Birthday, Winnie the Pooh!

Jakarta, 12 October 2006

Written under Miss Sassy (15)

After a long hiatus due to abundant, often pointless pressure from my latest 9-to-5 in the past half-year, here I am back to grace your Sunday paper with my jovial tales. And who’s more perfect to be the comeback reason than the jolly, good ol’ Winnie the Pooh, who, this weekend on the 14th, is turning…. eighty.

Yep! The silly ol’ bear is, in fact, an octogenarian. And I’m only talking about the animation character. The real Winnie the bear would have been even older.


What, you guys didn’t know there was a real Winnie bear? All this time? Awrighty, let’s get you all a crash course on the bear who reportedly only rivaled by Mickey the mascot on Disney’s brand portfolio. A mean feat considering he wasn’t even an original Disney character.

When Walt Disney was still a prancing teenager, Lt. Harry Colebourn from Winnipeg (yes, Canada) heeded the call to ship out to Europe for the World War I. When the eastbound train stopped at Ontario, he met a hunter selling a female black bear cub whose mother’s been killed. Lt. Coleburn took pity at the motherless cub, and thinking about the long time at sea he’d have, decided to shell out some dollars and get himself a new friend. After his hometown, he named the cub Winnie.

When the ship arrived in Britain Winnie had become the darling of the troops. But Lt. Coleburn’s battle posting forced him to leave his new friend at the care of London Zoo for the next few years, where she again soon became the darling, this time for the wartime London children.

One of them was Christopher Robin Milne, the only son of noted playwright and writer Alan Alexander Milne. He had a stuffed-bear named Edward, at some point befriended a pond swan named Pooh– and after meeting Winnie the real bear and took much liking, started re-christening Edward to Winnie the Pooh. Don’t ask.

A.A. Milne decided to use his son’s new infatuation to write a short story about a young male bear, adding characters of pig, tiger, donkey and kangaroo from the son’s coterie of stuffed animals, plus a rabbit and owl from Ashdown Forest near their Cotchford Farm in east Sussex. The story took off right after appearing on London Evening News the day before Christmas1925, that the very next day BBC broadcasted it.

I’m taking the liberty to assume that this success must’ve inspired A.A. Milne to write his first children story book. On 14 October 1926, ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ was born.

And where have the pudgy, hunny-loving Poohbear and his friends been the past eight decades? Pretty much everywhere. Silly, funny, honest, not particularly brilliant yet kindhearted, Pooh is easy to love. He doesn’t know much, yet his loyalty keeps him next to his friends as they bounce along carrot field much to Rabbit’s chagrin, being floated around by big blue balloons, sit through Owl’s many unsolicited lectures, or set on a dangerous journey to find Heffalump. And though some teasingly refers to him as The Bear With Very Little Brain, I prefer to call him simple, and believe his very simplemindedness that has won hearts of children everywhere. Easy to follow, rather gullible and gets into troubles for obsession over honey, he’s not another superior figure a kid has to deal with after spending a whole day trying to survive obnoxious older siblings and patronizing adults. Pooh is just one of them… one of us.

One of us, you ask? Well, yes. Pooh transcends generations quite well. Admitted or not, many adults find solace in this fallible creature who’s sincerely unapologetic about his limitations and simply takes life as it comes. He’s a comforting refuge in the midst of this meaner, quicker, maddening world.

Disney must’ve also understood this equity when they bought the TV rights in mid-‘60s, despite Walt’s daughter’s love for the storybook that allegedly brought their attention first. After all, Disney is a magic kingdom that builds on family, not children only, entertainment. The pale yellow bear with pink winter cropped sweater, as in E. H. Shepard’s original drawing, went through repackaging into a brighter-toned, year-round-vivid-red-sweater-wearing, chubbier bear. Winnie the Pooh was introduced to the American audience, and later to the world. And we all fell in love.

I’d fallen in love with him before the rage finally made its way here about a decade ago. I found my initial Poohbear in a Jakarta toy store’s shelve at least two decades ago, looking a bit unwanted, perhaps because he was so unknown here by then, but there’s something about this odd looking plump bear that was just so endearing I just had to buy him. His head slightly tilted to the right, and I never figured out if it was meant to make him interesting or simply a production mishap. My prim Mom once offered to do a major sewing surgery to detach and straighten out his head, but thankfully I saved him before such cruelty happened. Pooh was never left alone with Mom since, either.

Through books I finally came to know and love Pooh. He traveled with me when I was younger, toted around or shuffled into backpack. As I got older and embarrassed to be seen carrying a stuffed animal, I kept him in suitcase. He was there on sleepovers, family vacations, and the summers in college when my parents would ship me off for an enrichment learning during what’s supposedly a break from school. Yes, we’re proud to announce that Pooh lived in Harvard for a summer with me. And, befittingly, we took a picture in front of the tiny red door with golden-lettered ‘Mr. Sanders’ plaque some humorous construction worker had made on one of the trees at Harvard Yard. Go ask anybody who’s worth his Veritas education, and he’ll tell you about that legendary Pooh tree.    

Pooh witnessed the fiery romances, the teary breakups, the dreary jobs or devilish bosses, and the brutal battle to get the dream job in the dreamland. From naïve high school to bubbly college and crazy graduate school days, Pooh saw them all. He never judged when I threw away paychecks for pretty things, nor has he bailed out on the monthly PMS cryfest. Hey, gimme some slack, other women get bitchy– I just have a good, long cry with my bear. 

His supposedly protruding nose is flattened from years of me nuzzling him. His chubby figure has lost much of the stuffing, perhaps from the annual trip to the drycleaner, but he remains cuddly through and through. As my onetime roommate Brutuwan once observed, Pooh is by far the permanent (male) fixture on my bed. So much for all the hot romances, eh.

Most friends know about our bonding that every birthday, even well past my 25th, I’d get at least one Pooh item. From cutleries to stationeries, fluffy towels to fuzzy copies of him. I’m responsible for acquiring a big number of Pooh merchandises myself, from books to bathroom hooks. I read Christopher Robin Milne’s book, in which he clearly distanced himself from the boy character he claimed the Dad had wholly invented. I even read The Tao of Pooh, which I thought was a bit uncharacteristic, as the simple Pooh couldn’t have conjured up something so philosophical. But one thing I remember most fondly was the one I couldn’t get.

During my Harvard semester I often strolled along Boston’s ritzy Newbury Street. Once I popped into a nice gallery, where I unexpectedly saw the original animation drawings of Winnie the Pooh movie. Computer-generated animation is the default these days, but the early films would have hundreds of animators toiling away for months drawing each split-second scene, and the original hand-drawn layouts that made their way to art circuit are highly marketable. I’ll never forget the 2 original drawings that the gallery displayed. One is a B/W sketch of scene when Pooh was stuck in Rabbit’s door after finishing Rabbit’s honey pots, with below part of him left inside the living room, and the irritated Rabbit decided to use the stretched legs for drying towels. The other one is a fully colored one from the scene when the friends scarred by storm and huddled together in Pooh’s bedroom, with Pooh standing in his hyacinth sleeping gown and matching hat looking perplexed. Too, too adorable.

The gallery attendant and I soon chatted lively about the drawings. I fell silent, though, when I found out each tag was equal to the pocket money I had for the entire summer. I sheepishly told her that there’s no way I could ever afford any of the drawings, but if it were okay I’d just linger there for a while to admire them. The nice lady left me alone to help a group of Japanese tourists who just came in. When I waved before leaving, she waved back and pointed me to approach her desk. There, she handed out 2 giant postcards of scenes from the movie.

You don’t have to, I politely shook my head. I don’t, she replied, but I know you’ll appreciate them just as you would the drawings. 

I still keep those postcards. And I still have the initial Pooh ensconced on my bed, with other newer Poohs gathered somewhere else in my bedroom. I don’t travel with him anymore, as I just can’t picture explaining his existence to the vigilant airport securities these days, but I did make one last trip with him to London a few years ago, when I fulfilled my promise to reunite him with the very first place Winnie bear found fame. There it was at the rear of London Zoo, stood the life-sized bronze statues of Lt. Colebourn feeding Winnie the black bear, and I dutifully snapped pictures of my Pooh with them.

One trip that we still do now involves annual bath at the cleaners. And it’s time.

Come on, hunny bear, let’s get your furs all bright again. Happy birthday, and thank you for soldiering on all these years. If only you knew how much I love you.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2006/10/22/happy-birthday-winnie-pooh.html


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