Furr column: Food Lion, Cheerwine and… Cool Beans?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 3, 2012

A while back, my son went up to his science teacher to tell her something that he knew about a newly discovered planet much like Earth. Listening intently to him, and happy with what he shared, she raised her right hand with thumb extended, and then out rolled the words: “cool beans,” accompanied by a satisfied Cheshire Cat grin.
He stood there for a moment looking at her blankly, his left eye quivering in shock.
“Who says ‘cool beans’ anymore?” he asked me later. Made his skin actually crawl. No, seriously! His skin actually crawled over to the closet and hid in his coat pocket until class was over.
I have heard the phrase “cool beans” myself three times during the last decade and can recount exactly where I was and what I was doing at every instance, just like when JFK or some other hugely traumatic event happens and the moment caught in a mental snapshot and framed thus forever in our mind’s eye. I suppose, like JFK’s being shot, and such similar things, the perps should always be known by all three of their names…Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance. In this case, I do not know the middle names of the mouthers of the dreaded “CB” phrase, so we’ll very kindly keep them unidentified.
“Cool beans” is a phrase whose time has come, and long since gone again. All of these people who have been documented using the dreaded phrase are otherwise very nice, intelligent, and well-educated people. But, they are all also of a certain age…my age. They are those who did most of their growing up in the 1960s (first kisses, first crushes, grammar school, first heartbreaks, etc) and that is about the time-frame the phrase was really becoming popular here.
Some postulated that the phrase originated in Boston, and had something to do with their famous baked beans being cool enough to eat. Wrong. I am going to divulge the true (and secret) meaning, to you, the Salisbury Post reader for the very first time. Please digest this information with due respect. I am sharing a deep family secret.
The phrase “cool beans” has a Salisbury origin.
You know how Cheerwine, the bubbly and nectarous liquid concoction found its origin right here in Salisbury? Well, “cool beans” has the same boast…. sort of. The phrase was actually created in Hawaii just prior to World War II. This phrase found its true beginning at the very Hickam Army Airfield adjacent to the famous Pearl Harbor where Japan started their attack on the Pacific Fleet (many forget that the Army Air Force base was also attacked).
The time was early summer 1941. Hawaii was the place to be if you happened to find yourself in the military. Gorgeous beaches, hula skirts, Diamond Head, hula skirts.
A young Salisburian found himself in just such an assignment. Charged with the task of being company cook for assembled Air Corps staff, it amounted to a huge daily chore. With the dedicated help of his kitchenmates, this Salisburian took the task seriously, putting his all into making the tastiest dishes he could…a little too tasty in one regard.
Having a notorious penchant for far too much Texas Pete hot sauce and habanero peppers , the chili beans he concocted soon were known to be far too toxic for the average corpsman to swallow. After receiving many protests and reports of men actually having multiple visits to the infirmary on base from the intestinal burns, orders came down to “cool things off.”
To satisfy this order, our Salisburian arranged a special pot for the less-capsaicinated beans (capsaicin is the hot stuff in hot sauce) and posted a large sign above the pot emblazoned in giant bold letters with the phrase “COOL BEANS.”
The phrase soon took on a life of its own. Since it was associated with things pleasurable, it often became the chic thing to say on the island. Also, since the Air Corp often rotated staff to other bases, its use quickly spread all across the Pacific Basin through use by both the airmen and also the Navy men at the adjacent Pearl Harbor base, since Navy boys thought anything to do with the flyboys next door was exotic and enticing.
Although our Salisburian was ordered home in August of that year and then discharged due to an attack of asthma, the legacy eventually followed him even here. By the late 1950s, use of the phrase had spread all the way back to the Eastern Seaboard, and not only had it spread, it had also spawned a simpler form: “cool.”“Cool” was picked up by the Haight Ashbury beatnik crowd, and in the same way “peace” became the byword of the 60s revolution culture, “cool” was the “hip” word of the late 50s. Few realized that it shared a common origin with the older phrase “cool beans.”
Ever since the phrase intermingled with the 60s protest movement, our WWII Salisburian soured on the use of it or its derivative “cool” and dismissed his part in its genesis.
It was only much later that the full story came to light, and then only told to me in confidence. My own siblings have never even been told of this family history.
The cook at the Hickam Airfield was my very own father!
Charles Albert Furr (there we go with three names for the perp again) was the cook who, under orders, placed the large sign emblazoned “COOL BEANS” over a steaming pot of less-seasoned chili beans in just the right place to be seen by hundreds or even thousands of young military men on their way to destiny.
Gordon Furr lives in Salisbury.