Joseph Strout became keeper of Portland Head lighthouse in 1904, following in the footsteps of his father who had been keeper of the lighthouse for thirty-five years. Keeper Strout had with him at the lighthouse his father’s pet parrot, Billy, who was then fifty years old! The elder Strout had bought Billy at a market on the Barbary Coast in the days when he was a sea captain. Billy had sailed many a voyage with Captain Strout and weathered many a storm. Now, Billy enjoyed a quiet life ashore in Southern Maine. Portland Head was one of the prettiest spots in all of New England, and its lighthouse was the most important beacon Down East, as Maine was called.
Billy was no ordinary bird. He was a gray African parrot, as handsome a bird as likely you’ll ever see. He also was very intelligent. He liked to sit on Keeper Strout’s shoulder and bob his head up and down in agreement with everything the keeper said. Sometimes Keeper Strout would utter a loud sneeze, and Billy would flap his wings and pretend a storm was coming!
When he wasn’t perched on the keeper’s shoulder, he sat on a long piece of driftwood Mrs. Strout had fetched out of the sea. She put it in the kitchen so she could keep and eye on Billy while she cooked. Sometimes she even sang songs to him. Billy rocked back and forth on his driftwood perch as if waltzing.
The best thing about Billy was that he could talk. He said lots of things, like “hello” and “Billy want a cracker” and “Billy need a nap.” He said, “All ashore that’s goin’ ashore,” because he had spent so much time on a ship. He also said some very special things, since he was a lighthouse parrot. If the fog rolled in, Billy screeched “Foggy! Foggy! Turn on the foghorn, Joe!” If the pressure dropped, Billy shouted “Storm a’coming! Storm a’coming!” And, of course, when dusk fell Billy yelled, “Joe! Turn on the light!”
One of Billy’s favorite activities was watching Assistant Keeper Cameron’s son at play. Little Don was fun to watch, for he always seemed to be getting into some sort of mischief. Mrs. Strout warned little Don not to go too near the sea, and Mrs. Cameron forbid little Don to climb on the rocks below the lighthouse. Assistant Keeper Cameron told Don to stay away from the foghorn, lest his eardrums be split by the loud blast. Keeper Strout just patted little Don on the head and said, “Be careful, boy!” Day after day, it seemed little Don always was getting into some sort of trouble. And Billy kept careful watch over him.
On the first day of school in September, when little Don was six, his mother dressed him in his best white shirt and green pants and matching jacket. He was going to first grade!
“Now, go and play until it’s time to head for school,” Mrs. Cameron said. “And don’t get your nice clothes messy!”
Don wasn’t sure how he could play and still stay clean. But, then something caught his eye. A pretty toy boat lay upon the rocks near the lighthouse, probably left by some summer visitor. Sailing a toy boat wouldn’t be messy. Don went to the edge of the concrete pier that surrounded the lighthouse, and then he climbed down the rocks. The little boat was within reach, and Don soon grabbed it, a smile of satisfaction on his face. But a boat belonged in water. Don looked at the sea. It seemed deep and scary, but he wanted so much to sail the toy boat. Foolishly, he threw the little wooden ship into the water. Its small white sails filled with wind and it began to bounce and jiggle as the waves tossed it about. Don gasped, realizing his new-found toy would be dashed to pieces against the rocks. He had to save it!
He dropped to his knees, then sprawled on the rocks on his belly and stretched his arm as far as it would go in the direction of the little pitching boat. Stretch! Stretch! He felt the buttons on his new green jacket scraping the rocks. Stretch! Stretch! SPLASH!
Before he knew what had happened, Don slid off the rocks and tumbled into the cold sea. His head went under, then he came up with a gasp and swallowed a big gulp of salty water.
“Help! Glub! Glub!” he gurgled before his head went under again. Don didn’t know how to swim!
In Mrs. Strout’s kitchen, Billy had been watching little Don through the window. He knew the boy had gone too near the edge of the sea, and the moment he saw little Don fall in the water, Billy began to squawk and hop up and down on his driftwood perch: “Man overboard! Man overboard!”
Mrs. Strout turned from her baking and waved a warning finger at Billy: “Now, you hush Billy. You’re not on Captain Strout’s ship anymore. No one goes overboard on land.”
Billy ruffled his feathers and bobbed his head defiantly. “Man overboard!” he yelled again. But Mrs. Strout turned away and ignored him.
Billy jumped down from his perch and waddled out the kitchen door. Keeper Strout and Assistant Keeper Cameron were in the oilhouse counting cans of oil. Billy hopped over to the oilhouse and jumped up and down in the doorway, flapping his wings.
“Man overboard! Man overboard!” he squawked.
Keeper Strout paused from his work, looked at Billy, and chuckled. Assistant Keeper Cameron wiped the perspiration off his forehead and pointed a finger at Billy: “You are a crazy old bird-brain, Mr. Bill,”” he laughed. “There’s no man overboard at this lighthouse.”
Desperate, Billy now looked for Mrs. Cameron. Surely, she would listen to his cries. Every mother loves her child, doesn’t she? He found her hanging wash on the line before she took Don to school.
“Man overboard! Man overboard!” Billy shouted, hopping up and down on his scaly legs.
“Oh, shoo! You silly old bird!” Mrs. Cameron said. “Get away from my clean wash! Shoo!”
Billy rolled his eyes and shook his green head. He knew he had to do something and do it quick. Little Don was drowning!
Though he seldom flew anymore, Billy stretched his weak old wings and flapped them wildly until his body lifted into the air. Mrs. Cameron watched in amazement as Billy went airborne and flew to the edge of the rocks off the lighthouse. There, he dove and disappeared.
“Yikes!” she screamed. “That crazy old parrot of Keeper Strout’s will drown! Help! Help!”
Running as fast as she could, she came to the edge of the rocks and looked down at the sea. A mass of green greeted her – green wings, green feathers, green seaweed, green fabric. Old Billy was flopping about in the water tugging on a green piece of cloth. In horror, Mrs. Cameron realized it was little Don’s jacket. Quickly, she reached down and grabbed the fabric. Little Don surfaced and was pulled from the frigid sea. Sputtering, he clutched his mother’s neck and began to cry.
“Oh, Don! Are you okay?” she asked hugging the boy much too tightly. He nodded, and she wiped away his tears. They both looked down at the water where old Billy was still splashing and flapping. “Man overboard!’ he yelled. Mrs. Cameron leaned down and pulled the wet old parrot from the water.
“Billy! You aren’t crazy after all! Why…why…you were trying to tell me about little Don, weren’t you?” she said. “You saved him from drowning! Oh, you wonderful old bird!”
Billy coughed a little and shook the water off his feathers. “All ashore that’s going ashore!” he rasped. Then he waddled over the rocks toward the lighthouse, anxious to get back on his cozy kitchen perch. “Billy need a nap! Billy need a nap!”
By this time, Keeper Strout and his wife and Assistant Keeper Cameron had arrived. Everyone laughed when they saw Billy all wet and grumbling about needing a nap. They were glad to see little Don was safe. Keeper Strout fetched a long hook and pulled the little toy boat from the water. Mrs. Cameron hugged little Don over and over, and then scolded him for getting his new school clothes messy.
“Why, he looks just like old Billy now!” Keeper Strout said. “He’s a gren, wrinkly old bird! And, he has a great story to tell his friends and his teacher on the first day of school.”
And, indeed he did, for little Don had been rescued by a lighthouse keeper’s parrot. He wondered if his friends would believe it!