Author James Milton Hanna (b. 1932) has written 9 books chronicling local historical color from the mid-20th century. Many, such as his first, “Cornbread and Beans for Breakfast,” published in 1995, portray the Depression era scene from his childhood in Cherokee, AL. This is the title story from that collection.
When Milton was in the seventh grade at Cherokee Vocational High School, he met Billy, who lived in the mountains southwest of Cherokee. Billy often asked Milton to spend the night with him.
Milton was reluctant to accept because he was afraid he would then have to ask Billy to spend some time at his house, where there wasn’t enough room for an overnight guest. Milton held out as long as he could, but eventually gave in to Billy’s persistence. His mother approved and gave him advice on how to behave when visiting another family. Her most important point was that he not do anything that would reflect poorly on his family name.
That day at school, Milton was excited that he would be having a new adventure, and looked forward to the ten-mile school bus ride to Billy’s home. Billy and Milton got off the bus at a mailbox in the hills. A narrow trail led into the woods. After walking about 15 minutes through tall pine trees, they came to Billy’s house. It was a large, three-room log cabin with a kitchen (serving as a combination living and dining room) and two bedrooms. There was no indoor plumbing; a path led to an outhouse at the rear of the cabin and another path led to a spring bubbling from the base of a cliff.
Billy introduced Milton to his parents and his two sisters. They were friendly people, and their conversation was sprinkled with plenty of “this heres” and “that theres,” “we uns,” “ain’ts” and other “hill talk.” But Milton was used to being around mountain folk and found nothing objectionable in their speech.
Before dinner, Milton helped Billy with his chores. They carried several buckets of water from the spring, slopped the hogs, chopped wood and carried it to the house, and fed the mules and cattle. After their chores, they sat down to a supper of turnip greens, salt pork, and corn bread. Everything was delicious. Milton had eaten only a sandwich for lunch, but it didn’t matter—he was hungry all the time.
After supper, the boys did their math homework by kerosene lamp. When they had finished, they listened to stories about “city slickers who thought they knew about everything,” told by Billy’s family. Milton briefly wondered whether they considered him a “city slicker” and were telling stories to embarrass him. The entire family would laugh after each story. One of Billy’s sisters had a laugh that reminded Milton of the braying of a mule. Though Milton didn’t find many of the stories funny, he laughed to be polite. He was growing uncomfortable and was glad when Billy’s mother said it was time for bed.
Milton had been wondering where he was to sleep. Billy led him into a bedroom and said they would be sleeping here. So the two boys stripped down to the underpants and got in bed. Then, to Milton’s amazement, Billy’s two sisters climbed into bed with them. Milton was so embarrassed that he was afraid to move. The bed was obviously crowded, and the room was very cold. Milton lay there, sandwiched between the two girls, and utterly afraid to move. Soon, all were asleep—but Milton.
He must have lain awake for two or three hours. Everyone was snoring. Suddenly, Milton heard a loud noise under the floor of the bedroom. There was a lot of squealing and grunting, and something bumped against the floor. Milton sat upright in bed and woke one of the sisters sleeping next to him. He whispered, “What’s that noise?” She sleepily replied, “Go back to sleep. That’s only the hogs—their pen is under the house.” She turned and went back to sleep. Milton, too, eventually drifted off to sleep until all four were shaken awake by Billy’s mother, announcing that breakfast was ready. The boys and girls dressed and went to the kitchen where they washed up at a basin on a bench. Each used the same water and the same towel.
Billy’s mother asked Milton if he had slept well, and Milton politely answered yes. There was nothing to be gained from telling the truth, he reasoned.
Breakfast consisted of beans, cornbread, and milk. Milton felt embarrassed about having beans and cornbread for breakfast. It was well known in the South that only the poorest people ate beans and cornbread for breakfast. He made a secret promise to himself not to tell anyone how poor Billy’s family was. After all, Billy was a good friend. And he was also too embarrassed to tell anyone that he had slept with two girls who snored loudly and who, as the night grew colder, had snuggled up to him.
At school that day, it was hard for Milton to stay awake, but he sure was looking forward to returning to his own home—and his own bed—for the night. After that night at Billy’s, Milton learned to appreciate his own home more and came to realize that his family was not as poor as he sometimes thought it was.