John Guare’s play “Six Degrees of Separation” explores the premise that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else in the world by a chain of no more than six acquaintances. Recent events have convinced me that the number of degrees needs to be about half that.
The latest round of my enlightenment started out at a Rotary club meeting months ago when I was introduced to Buddy Holt, the plant manager of Brownwood’s Kohler Co. facility. Buddy mentioned he grew up on the East Coast, so I asked for more details, since I also “grew up on the East Coast.” It turns out we are both natives of the same small North Carolina city — Burlington — and we would have graduated from the same high school if my parents hadn’t moved to New Mexico when I was a teenager.
It’s a small world, isn’t it, we observed, and life went on.
Then last month, Buddy told me he found out that another Brownwood resident, Dave Olhausen, has an uncle who had been a doctor in that same North Carolina city. I recognized the doctor’s name immediately. It was the same last name — Kernodle — as the physician who delivered me, and who delivered Buddy a year later. That doctor was more than just my mother’s physician; he had also been a family friend and special adviser to two young parents.
Our world suddenly became smaller.
Dave came to the news-paper office on another matter before I had a chance to call him, and he provided more details. Dave’s uncle — who was married to his mother’s sister — was actually a cousin of the gynecologist who cared for my mother and Buddy’s way back when. That doctor, Dave’s uncle and the brother of Dave’s uncle — all three having the same last name — had opened a medical clinic there in the years following World War II.
Dave had a yellowing copy of the June 27, 1950, local newspaper article reporting on the grand opening of that clinic. It came from the scrapbooks Dave’s mother had faithfully kept throughout her adult life. Dave also told me of enjoyable summer days he had spent with his aunt and uncle in Burlington as a young man.
All this transpired about a week before a visit to my family in North Carolina was planned, so while I was in the neighborhood I spent some time retracing some steps — with my mother and wife in tow.
I drove down the streets to see the three houses where my family had lived. The first one had been torn down to make room for a church parking lot.
I went by the house I thought must have been the one in which Buddy grew up — and my calculations were right, Buddy told me Wednesday after I shared the photo I took.
I drove by the doctors’ clinic, and it’s still serving the community under a new generation of doctors with the same last name.
I went by the separate elementary campuses where Buddy and I were schooled. Both are still there, although they have been turned over to private organizations and agencies for other worthwhile uses.
This “degrees of separation” phenomenon is not exactly new, because it’s been happening for years, albeit on a smaller scale. For example, shortly after Dr. Hal Woodward opened his pediatrics practice here and our children were still preschoolers, we learned that while in residency in North Carolina, he had received referrals from the doctor who was my pediatrician as a lad in North Carolina. Also, at my father’s funeral in 1986, I discovered that the pastor of my parents’ church in North Carolina had been the Duke Divinity School roommate of one of my good friends at Howard Payne. While we weren’t roommates, our rooms were directly across the hall from each other during his senior year at HPU. (OK, for the sake of our stickler of a proofreader, I’ll concede that it was a “college” then.) He and I spent many late nights challenging each other on our vocabulary skills. For the record, I didn’t stand a chance against him.
And I haven’t even touched on the connections I’ve discovered with people I knew during high school years in New Mexico. To me, that’s just as remarkable, but probably not as unusual because of the shorter distance between where I was then and where I am now. Connections in the next state are one thing; connections halfway across the country, another.
Maybe you can go home again, after all. Or just maybe… I never really left.
Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.