Amazing, I just met your friend’s doctor’s mailman’s brother’s bartender!

6 degrees header

Sometimes 6 degrees of separation is often too far removed!  I would like to share three examples that make the old expression “It’s a small world” vividly and uncannily ring true.

By David Wesley Tonkin


Six degrees of separation is the idea that everyone is approximately six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made, on average, to connect any two people in six steps. It was originally set out by Hungarian Frigyes Karinthy in 1929


 “Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all.”   Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!


October 1983: We were engaged upon that bitter-sweet round of farewells to family and friends before we boarded the South African Airways Boeing 747 and flew from Johannesburg to Detroit MI (with a few stops and plane changes!) with  anticipation and excitement about our new home and life in the USA!

One of our really heart wrenching stops was the home of our much cherished friends (I will change names throughout the blog in respect for people’s privacy) the Zanderburgs; our friendship had grown and blossomed over more than twenty years! The first thing Ma Zanderburg wanted to discuss, with eyes gleaming, was the letter she had received the day before our visit.

She had received a charming and amiable letter from a woman called Anne Chapman who lived in Grosse Pointe MI. The letter explained that both Anne and her sister were born in the house the Zanderburgs now owned in the Pretoria suburb of Sunnyside. Anne asked if photographs of the house could be taken and mailed to her. She explained that the doctors did not hold out too much hope that her sister would live to see the New Year’s arrival. She said her sister had expressly asked to see pictures of her birthplace in far-off South Africa!

You do not say “no” to Ma Zanderburg! We were instantaneously volunteered to deliver the photographs personally. We had no idea where Grosse Point was in relation to our new home in Bloomfield Hills MI … we were soon to discover that Grosse Pointe MI was a prosperous, gracious and historical area on the shores of Lake St. Clair. It was a 30 minute drive from our new home! The Pointe, as we learned to call it, was the residence locale choice of many of Detroit’s automotive “royalty”, particularly several generations and offshoots of Henry Ford’s family.

Anne’s sister’s wish was fulfilled; her gratitude was both gracious and generous. Anne straightaway elected to become the American grandmother to our children; they love her dearly and in return she loved them enthusiastically and abundantly … and spoiled them rotten at every opportunity! Oh, bye-the-bye Anne and my wife discovered early in their conversations that they had both attended the Sunnyside Elementary School (they are called Primary Schools in South Africa) in Sunnyside, Pretoria … obviously many years apart!

November 1985: Here’s another! As the wheels of the Pan Am 747 Clipper (Giving my age away! Do you remember Pan Am?) touched down on the tarmac of Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão International Airport, thoughts of Rio cartwheeled joyously about in my head … the samba, the spectacular balneario (resort) beaches I had heard about for years; such as Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. Also some of the most celebrated of Rio’s landmarks including the towering statue of Christ the Redeemer on the peak of the Corcovado Mountain, and the universally distinctive Sugarloaf Mountain (Its name is Pão de Açúca in Portuguese) with its sweepingly magnificent awe-inspiring cable car ascents and descents.  Do you remember the massive destruction of the lower cable station by a runaway cable car in the James Bond (Roger Moore as the hero!) movie “Moonraker”?

I however; need to retain one sober and salient thought; this is actually a business trip!

Towards the end of a very productive second day in the Brazilian Subsidiary HQ of my then employers I grasped the opportunity to walk over to the office of the Personal Assistant to the country sales and marketing leaders. I wanted to thank Juanita de Freitas for her flawless management and juggling of my appointment schedule with all the people I planned and hoped to spend time with.

Two sentences into my cadence of gratitude she smiled and said “You are from South Africa!” After confirming the accuracy of her instincts I learned a little of Juanita’s life. Her family had lived in the (then) Portuguese East African colony of Mozambique. During the colony’s bloody and crippling War of Independence (September 1964 to September 1974) there was a mass exodus of Mozambique’s political and business leaders and most of the local universities intelligentsia to neighboring countries like Malawi and South Africa who willingly provided a safe haven for these refugees, their talents and their money. Juanita’s family was part of that group. They set up residence in South Africa’s legislative capital city of Pretoria. She recounted her struggle to make new friends and speak English at her new high school; one of Pretoria’s elite pillars of learning … the Loretto Convent High School for Girls.

When I informed Juanita that my wife was also a Loretto Convent graduate and provided her name from before our marriage, the office was filled with a cry of joy that drew the attention of almost everyone in the office complex!  It turns out, when she calmed down enough to explain, that both women had, years earlier, taken several classes together at the school and played on the school’s field hockey team! Much to my wife’s later embarrassment, Juanita quickly remembered that she had somehow just escaped a season-long ban for the overzealous application of her field hockey stick in a tough game!

The next day Juanita showed me a class photograph … where, in addition to the obligatory two fierce-looking nuns’ front-and-center of the picture there was my wife at the left of the seated front row and Juanita in the center of the standing back row.

The whoop of joy in Rio was well matched by my wife’s high decibel reaction when I arrived home and presented her a copy of the picture!

One more … and I will make it brief.  One of our neighbors on Fox River Drive, Bloomfield Hills, Don Cooper was sent by his management (with family in tow!) to South Africa to rescue the company’s local subsidiary from sinking into a corporate abyss. We briefed them on the local conditions and culture and bid them bon chance during their three year sojourn! The only family member in total shock was the Cooper’s teenage daughter … when we informed her that there were autocratically heinous uniform and appearance standards at every school!

About three years later a friend (actually a member of the Zanderburg family mentioned earlier!) visiting from South Africa was musing over a glass of matchless Napa Valley Merlot that being laid-off by the “company savior” from the USA was the spur he needed to launch his now growing  automotive electrical repair business!

After dinner we walked him across the road and let him get re-acquainted with Don Cooper; which turned out to be a most civilized reunion!

As it says in the Dr. Seuss quote earlier in the blog, ““Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!”

 Small world … isn’t it!?


Thank you Wikipedia!    Both for the 6 degrees of separation definition and the date checks in the blog!





1 thought on “Amazing, I just met your friend’s doctor’s mailman’s brother’s bartender!

  1. Walt Lapinsky

    Much like what politicians and the media do to establish blame after some bad event, it is easy to connect dots afterwards since you can see both ends. This is also true about casual conversation. If Juanita had not noticed your South African accent, you would not have pursued any connection. We tend to proceed down paths of shared experiences and remember when we get an “aha” moment, but forget the hundreds of time we have interactions that never get that far. Since we each start with a set of fairly large multi-dimensional circles of locations, avocation, education and vocation, there are a lot of people we have some tenuous relationship with. We don’t necessarily make a real effort to find that connection on people who don’t immediately appear to share one of our circles. It is why LinkedIn works.

    Nice stories.


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