I visited with a neighbor this weekend. He’s my parents’ age (which is to say, middle-aged), and is the undisputed king of the tangential story. Given any question, he’ll manage to turn it into a 5-10 minute yarn. This would be annoying, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s got some awesome stories.

This weekend I asked him for the correct pronunciation of his last name, which is rather unique. In one sentence, he answered my question, and then proceeded to relate the following story.

His surname, it turns out, is Portuguese. His paternal great-grandfather immigrated from the Azores and settled in New England, where he took up his prior trade of whaling. (My neighbor was quick to point out that whaling was fully legal back then, and that it was how most people got the oil they used to light their homes at the time. A tangent within a tangent! I told you he was the master of this technique.)

His great-grandfather was the harpoonist aboard the ship. One day, as they were out hunting Right whales (which, according to my neighbor, are called “Right” whales because they were the “right” kind of whale, due to the prodigious amounts of oil they produce), they sighted a whale and proceeded to harpoon it. To their dismay, they had harpooned not a Right whale, but a large Sperm whale, which proceeded to drag their boat at great speed for some distance. After pulling the boat quite some way from land, the whale dove, snapping the cable, and then breached, jumping right up from below the boat and snapping it in two. (Moby Dick, anyone?)

This was a largish boat, with oars some 14 feet in length, and my neighbor’s great-grandfather clung to one of these large oars for three and a half days, before washing ashore on (get this) a deserted island. There, he survived by scavenging for several more days before a search party finally found and rescued him.

And all of this, because I asked for the proper pronunciation of my neighbor’s last name!

As with most family lore, I suspect there is more than a little exaggeration in this story, so I don’t necessarily accept it all at face value. But I love to hear stories like this, from people’s family history. It’s one thing to read history in a book, and another to hear it told to you as it was passed down orally through multiple generations of someone’s family. It breathes life into it, somehow.

What stories have you got from your own archive of family lore? (If you don’t know of any, try asking your parents or grandparents, if they are still alive. You might be surprised what stories they can share.)