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He Played Pooh Sticks in Forest Hill Park
I had a good phone voice, folks told me. You should try narrating audio books for children, more than one friend had said. Since high school, I had found myself cupping the receiver a few thousand times. Two stints on a magazine call center alone had given me enough phone time to rival an operator. And yet that Wednesday morning, my voice temporarily vanished.
I stared at the computer screen and picked at the split ends in my curls. A website that probably hadn't been updated since 1998 stared back at me. It was the official online presence for a one-hit wonder 1950s doo-wop group. There was no email address anywhere, only an address with a P.O. box located in a Southern city I had never visited. It was a Southern city I probably never would visit—and I say this as a charitable Southerner.
I had to figure out the home phone number for the band's only surviving member. If my time as a reporter has taught me anything, it's this: WhitePages.com tells you much more than it should. I typed the singer's name into White Pages and guessed that he might be living near that P.O. box. His name popped up. It appeared that more than one man by his name was living in the same city. No problem because White Pages always gives you approximate ages for each search result. I chose the only person, biologically and historically speaking, who could be him. Then I did what I was supposed to do two weeks ago: I dialed.
My voice is on the softer, more feminine side. When I'm scared, it gets too high. When I'm terrified, it disappears. As soon as the man answered the phone, I recognized his voice. I paused so long that he might've hung up if I hadn't suddenly recovered and introduced myself. Too squeaky and too fast, I explained that I had recently produced a short film that would be shown at art galleries and submitted to festivals. My director wanted permission to use his band's hit song. On our shoestring budget, we could not offer a royalty unless the film won a cash prize at a festival.
“Why I'm flattered,” the man said, his voice wavering a little. “It's nice to think that after all these years, that song still means something to somebody, especially at 9 a.m. on a weekday.”
The song had recently played on a major television show, but we didn't discuss that. Despite his age and famosity, he said that he was pleased that we wanted the song, that of course we could use it, and that my call was “one for the archives.” I chuckled, relieved. I asked if he would sign a release form, but he told me it wasn't “necessary for something like this.” As my confidence swelled, so did my voice and it became deeper and richer than normal. I started to tell him about the project, but he seemed more interested in where I was based. He interrupted me out of excitement:
“You know, my whole mother's family is from there, the south side, across the river. I remember that much. I lived there when I was really young.” Then he paused. “Are you familiar with the Winnie-the-Pooh stories?”
“Yeah, Christopher Robin?”
“Right. You know the game Pooh Sticks? I used to play it in the park there. That's where I learned it.”
I laughed, enchanted by the thought of this elderly man as a five-year-old throwing sticks in the creek and watching them float downstream with another tiny child. A park I knew from college adventures had been his Hundred Acre Woods.
After I reconfirmed that we had permission to use his song, I thanked him and hung up the phone. But Pooh Bear remained on my mind for the rest of the morning.
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