Phil Beaman grew up on a North Carolina tobacco farm, one of nine children, and plowed with a mule until he was 11 and his family finally got a tractor. It was a tough life, but Beaman looks back fondly at his childhood in Greene County. And a few years after he retired from a career in education, his nostalgia propelled him to write down the colorful sayings he remembered from his childhood.
“I always had an interest and a strong tie to my roots back in Greene County,” says Beaman, who lives in Elon, N.C., and graduated from NC State in 1958. “For some reason I started picking up on expressions and sayings I’d heard, and writing them down. I’ve got to do something with this stuff or put in the trash can.’’
A friend told him about a publisher interested in local history, and what began as scribblings on napkins and scraps of paper became Eastern North Carolina Sayings: From Tater Patch Kin to Madder than a Wet Setting Hen.
The paperback Beaman published this spring is a compendium of sayings Beaman remembers as well as other common phrases he finds curious. As for the book’s subtitle, tater patch kin is “when you claim to be kin to someone but maybe you’re just a distant cousin—or maybe you just live near them or worked in the same tater patch somewhere along the way,” he says. And anybody who crosses a wet setting hen will regret it.
Here are a few other nuggets from Beaman’s book:
“He complains so much, he’d complain if you hung him with a new rope.”
“She’s as pretty as a speckled pup.”
“He would argue with a fence post, then pull up the post and argue with the hole.”
“He was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.’’
“I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet.’’
Some of the phrases Beaman, 79, remembers came from his mother and father. He can recall his father holding a bolt in one hand and a nut in another while trying to reach for a tool. “He’d say, ‘If I had forty hands….’ ” Beaman says. Why 40? Beaman isn’t sure. Beamon also remembers his parents referring to a haircut as “getting our ears lowered.” In those days, he says, hair was cut at home. “There were barber shops but most of the farmers didn’t go to barbers. My mama was a neighborhood barber, and she charged little or nothing,” Beaman says.
Beaman was one of 19 in his high school graduating class, and says it was quite an adjustment when he arrived at NC State. He continued his education, eventually obtaining a doctorate from East Carolina University. After teaching school, he became superintendent of the Tarboro, N.C., school system. But he never forgot some of the colorful language of his childhood.
Including this: “Mama’s cooking collards, so open the screen and let the flies out.” Even the flies didn’t like the smell of cooking collards, he says.
–Sylvia Adcock ’81