In 1620, an indentured servant named John Howland climbed the rigging aboard a ship called the Mayflower in the middle of a storm and was violently thrown overboard. As the 28-year-old plunged toward certain death, his hand touched a rope that had come loose from the ship, and he grabbed hold.

John Howland hung on to that rope beneath the surface of the cold Atlantic for a long time before his shipmates — a mixture of Separatists from the Netherlands and poor, desperate Englishmen sent along by the venture’s investors — pulled him back to safety.

A few weeks later, the small party of 102 unprepared colonists reached what is now Massachusetts just in time for the onset of winter. Forty-five of them were dead by spring.

Howland was one of the survivors. He later became a free man, and married an orphan named Elizabeth Tilley, a Mayflower passenger whose parents died in that first winter. Tilley gave birth to 10 children by Howland, and they in turn produced 88 grandchildren.

Today, the descendants of Howland and Tilley are estimated to number more than 2 million Americans. They include actors Lillian Russell, Humphrey Bogart and Alec Baldwin, writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,, the Bush clan (including both presidents), Joseph Smith Jr. (founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints), Dr. Benjamin Spock, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The moral of the story: Grab a rope. Hold on.

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