Maxine Ferebee Pruett’s comments about the behavior of a young Davie County lad she babysat during the World War II era were diplomatic: “Oh, he was alright.”
Even though the two Davie County families lived close to each other in the Calahaln community along Highway 64, they were quite the contrast. The young lad, Zolliecoffer Neil Anderson, Jr., came from a large family of doctors, merchants and landowners.
Pruett and her large family were tenant farmers. Recently, the two of them invited me along for their first get-together since the 1950s.
Pruett, 91, a long-time Greensboro resident, went first, “There were 11 children in our family — three of us are still living. My father was sickly, he never owned a car — we traveled by horse and wagons.”
They changed houses often — 16 times during her childhood, she recalled.
“We walked to church, which was five or six miles from home,” Pruett said. “However, when we visited our grandparents in the Farmington community, we rode in our nice two-horse wagon. My parents sat up front. My mother was usually holding a baby. The rest of us sat in the back — under nice warm blankets in the winter.”
She and her siblings also walked the few miles to Davie Academy for elementary school, often arriving early so they could build a fire in the old pot-bellied stove. They caught the bus to Mocksville High School.
Anderson, 79, who was born in Calahaln but now lives in High Point, couldn’t hold the memories any longer. He interjected, “It was bus number 31!”
Pruett countered with the bus driver’s name and the observation that he didn’t have a driver’s license.
The two often reminisced at the same time — about going barefooted all summer and the families getting together for hog-killing in the fall.
Pruett recalled riding the family horses and mules bareback because they didn’t own a saddle.
Anderson credited chores around the farm for giving him the hand and arm strength that earned him a baseball scholarship at UNC-Chapel Hill.
All three of us knew the conversation would eventually take a poignant turn. Anderson took that lead, “Your brother and my father were like brothers. They spent hours together — playing, hunting, fishing and high school athletics.
“When he left to serve in World War II, my father drove him to the train station in Salisbury,” he said. “They corresponded for a while, but lost touch when your brother became involved in a secret program.”
Things got better for Pruett’s family after her brother became an Army Air Forces officer and B-17 bombardier. Over time, he sent enough money home for the family to purchase a home and farmland of their own. Their property was just as close to the Andersons, but in a different direction.
Anderson zeroed in on his memories of Aug. 6, 1945. “My grandmother and I were out in the yard near the well-house. I was carrying out my assigned churning duties when the radio blared, ‘In a top-secret mission today, a U.S. Air Forces bomber dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan — it is hoped Japan will now surrender and the war will be over.’ ”
In a few days, the name of the aircraft was made public — the Enola Gay, named in honor of the pilot’s mother. Names of the crew members were also released — Major Tom Wilson Ferebee, of the Davie County community of Calahaln, was the bombardier who released the deadliest weapon the world had ever known at that time.
Both Pruett and Anderson recall the large crowds that came for days just to get a look at the Ferebee home. According to Pruett, “Sometimes, it was so crowded, the smaller children ran and hid.”
Among many other honors, a historical highway marker was placed to identify the home and a nearby bridge was named in honor of Major Tom Ferebee.
Ferebee retired from the U.S. Air Force as a colonel after 30 years of service. He died March 16, 2000.
“Tom’s wishes were to be buried alongside family members — not in Arlington National Cemetery,” according to Pruett.
Anderson’s memories of Tom Ferebee’s last rites are indelible, “More folks came for the service than the town of Mocksville could accommodate. They lined up for miles along Highway 64, to wave flags and say goodbye to a favorite son. I was fortunate to meet the Enola Gay pilot, retired Brigadier Gen. Paul W. Tibbets, who spoke at the service.”
Anderson did not meet three other Air Force aviators who paid a final tribute to Col. Tom Ferebee — they were in the cockpit of the B-1 stealth bomber that flew over his graveside memorial service.