Pretty Boy: A carnival prize becomes a family's treasure
Updated: Aug 28
by Rick Scheflen
I am five years old, riding the Ferris wheel in Wildwood, NJ. Sitting next to me is my sister Barbara, who is two years older.
Far below our gondola, the view is amazing, stretching off in all directions and filled with hundreds of tiny people. The tantalizing smells of the boardwalk – caramel popcorn, cotton candy, candy apples, pizza and French fries – rise on the summer breeze on this late evening in July, 1955.
Barbara is fearless, as she will be all her life. On the other hand, I am terrified. I grip the safety bar with all my strength, not daring to even turn my head to look at the dark ocean and wide beach behind us. Barbara shifts her body to rock our car back and forth, not aware of the terror I am feeling.
When the ride slows, I pray that I will be on the wheel’s downward arc, so that I will be spared most of the stop-and-go movement as the Ferris wheel deposits its human cargo at the bottom.
No such luck. We make our way up, with each stop causing our car to rock like a cradle. At the very top, I summon my courage and look down at the ground, some 70 feet below. I see my mother, staring up at us and waving, as mothers must do. My father is holding something in his hands, but I can’t make out what it is.
As we get closer to the ground, I see that he is holding a cage of some kind. And minutes later, when I am thankfully back on the ground, I see that what he is holding is a caged bird, a bright blue parakeet.
“Pretty Boy,” I soon learn, was a prize offered at one of the gaming wheels on the boardwalk, along with stuffed animals and a variety of worthless trinkets. My father, who had a predilection for gambling, could not resist plunking down a few quarters, and when the wheel’s needle pointed to the slice of wheel labeled “Pretty Boy,” the bird had a new owner. There was no discussion of changing its name – Pretty Boy it was to be.
I did not know at the time that this bird would become a much-loved member of our family, and a source of amazement, for many years. That said, I will admit here that he was a disappointment in one area: he didn’t talk. Yes, he could say “Pretty Boy, Pretty Boy,” but that was the end of it. In spite of countless hours trying to get him to repeat things – “Give me a kiss!” – he never expanded his vocabulary.
But in every other area, this was one extraordinary bird. When we got back to Pennsauken and placed his cage in what we called the “back room,” we discovered that he was completely comfortable with humans. On his first day home, I reached into the cage and pressed my finger against his soft belly. Without hesitation, he hopped onto my finger and stayed there while I lifted him out of the cage. He let me pet the top of his head and press my lips against his little orange beak. He would even allow me to turn him on his back in the palm of my hand and stroke his belly.
We soon learned that he was happiest when out of his cage, so of course I would set him free every morning. He would immediately take flight, resting atop curtain rods and lamp shades throughout the house. This troubled my mother (who had to clean up the droppings on the windowsills), but in time Pretty Boy pretty much lived full time outside the cage, having the complete run of the house. The exception was when he took a bath, which he loved, and when we put him back in the cage at night, covering it with a bath towel.
Perhaps I am projecting here, but Pretty Boy seemed extremely intelligent. When Barbara and I stretched out on the living room floor to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings, he would nestle between us on the carpet, looking up at the screen and seeming to take in the antics of Heckle and Jeckle or Porky Pig.
One morning, my mother was carrying a basket of wet laundry through the room, on route to the clothesline in the backyard. Stepping over our spindly legs, she inadvertently stepped on Pretty Boy, who shrieked loudly and ran wildly around in a circle, with one wing hanging down. In time, we realized that his wing had been broken, and he never was able to fly again.
But he adapted. After that he just walked around the house, and became adept at climbing – up curtains, trousers, sofas, tablecloths, whatever. Eventually, he would climb aboard our dog, Bullets, and simply ride around on his back throughout the house. Bullets did not seem to mind.
Pretty Boy often joined our family for breakfast. He would climb up my leg, then my arm, and finally come to rest on my shoulder. If I was eating a piece of toast, he would stretch his neck forward and take a bite or two. His favorite was cinnamon toast – slathered with butter and sprinkled with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, a staple in our home.
On another occasion – this one at dinner – he sauntered from my arm into my plate of spaghetti, helping himself to a couple of bites. He then walked off the plate and across the table, leaving a trail of red footprints in his path.
This was it for my mother. She declared that from then on Pretty Boy was to be kept in his cage. But although I no longer opened his cage door to free him, we found him walking around the house every morning. How was this happening? The door to his cage was spring loaded, and there was no way Pretty Boy was able to get out of there on his own.
Or so we thought. To solve the mystery, I hid behind the door in the back room, standing in silence while peeking around the corner to see how he was getting out. I watched with amazement as Pretty Boy executed his amazing escape. Grabbing the bar above the door with his beak, he pushed out against the door with his feet. And then – this was the most incredible part – he began to shift his body in tiny increments toward the opening side of the door. Finally, he would force his body through the small opening – feathers flying — just barely escaping the metal door as it snapped shut behind him. Free at last, free at last!
After that, we didn’t try to constrain Pretty Boy. If he was smart enough to get out of his cage, and that determined to spend the day running (or walking) free, who were we to stop him?
Once, when Barbara was sick and staying home from school, she lay in our parents’ bed on the first floor. This was the official sick room in our house and staying there was one of the perks of having a fever. After a day with no improvement, my parents called Dr. Sauter, who arrived to examine her. On seeing Pretty Boy catching a ride through the living room on Bullets’ back, he noted, “You have such friendly animals.” Back in the bedroom, he reached down into his black bag to get his stethoscope and was shocked to find a parakeet sitting quietly among the pill bottles and tongue depressors.
As Pretty Boy grew older, he had his bad days. He didn’t bother trying to escape anymore, and sometimes we would find him in the morning just standing at the bottom of the cage. His birdseed would go uneaten, his water untouched. In an effort to revive him, my mother would put a few drops of whiskey in his water – she called it “hooch” — and amazingly, this elixir would indeed seem to bring him around for a while. Even so, we all knew the end was near, something we didn’t even want to think about.
One morning when I came down the stairs, still groggy with sleep, my father intercepted me on the way to the kitchen and told me that he had something to show me. He led me to the back room, where I saw Pretty Boy lying flat on his side atop the sheet of newspaper we used to line the bottom of his cage. “He died last night,” he said. “It’s sad, but everything dies eventually, and he had a really good life.”
Surprisingly, I didn’t cry. But I immediately decided that we should give him a decent burial. I found an old shoe box, lined it with newspaper and laid Pretty Boy gently inside. My father went off to work, so it was just my mother and I there when I dug a hole in the backyard and lowered the box into the ground. I haven’t lived in that house for over 50 years, but I could take you today to the exact spot where Pretty Boy rests.
I have always thought that Pretty Boy was an extraordinary bird because we were an extraordinary family. How else to explain how he immediately took to us, never showing fear at being held by human hands? How he simply trusted us completely from day one? Only now does it occur to me that maybe Pretty Boy had been domesticated by the boys who worked the wheel on the Wildwood Boardwalk. Perhaps when business was slow, they talked to him and reached in to rub his head and belly. Taught him to say Pretty Boy, Pretty Boy. Maybe even offered him a bite of funnel cake now and then. And who knows how long he had sat in his cage, the sound of seagulls calling high overhead, waiting for a family to take him home.