The fetter was soft and silky smooth as the crimson ribbon laced through the silver bracelet wrapped around a tiny wrist. Jenny and I made chicken salad sandwiches piled on peanut buttered celery sticks, added a pickle and an assortment of cookies for a picnic in the front tree. While we ate we watched the Howard’s across the street move out. Jen complained that the little wooden seat Dad had nailed into the branch hurt her tuckas so I removed my napkin and placed it under her. Dad made things like that for us just about everywhere we moved. In Marietta it was a tire swing over the creek behind the house and in Taipei it was a watermelon garden. Pieces of childhood strewn all over the world. The Christmas before Stevie Howard asked me to write a play to put on in his garage. Then Steve turned it into a magic show; POOF we were all supposed to be playing Post Office. Miffed, I grabbed Jen’s hand and we stormed home.

The next day two men in dress uniform showed up at Steve’s door saying his dad was M.I.A. One was the Protestant Base Chaplain who said the sermon every Sunday when I was allowed to go and told me what "being saved" was all about. I had to wonder about him and his other colleagues; Rabbi Samuel and Father Tom going to family homes to tell them their fathers were prisoners of war, missing in action or dead. I never knew who the other officer was that came along with him and never managed to round up the courage to ask Pastor Frank. It was easier to wonder than dare to imagine him showing up at our house with his Air Force blue hat tucked neatly under his left arm ...all standing there... at the kitchen door in shiny medals adorned with brightly colored ribbons.

Standing there, stock still with white-gloved hands, the stark contrast of toes wiggling nervously in his black spit shined shoes. Mrs. Howard didn’t cry at all, as a matter of fact, she didn’t say a whole lot when they told her. It was almost like she had it all planned out in the back of her mind. She just pointed to the Christmas wreath on the door and said she wasn’t taking it down ‘til Major Howard came home and that was that. By now, four months later, the wreath was brown and falling apart while its faded red ribbon that barely held a few pine needles together. She taught me how to blind stitch a hem, Mrs. Howard did. That was before her husband disappeared in Vietnam then they moved back home to South Carolina to live with her family. Jen and I missed six Christmases in a row with my dad during Vietnam. This all happened in a long time gone, we never knew if Stevie’s dad ever got to come home and take down that wreath. Life in the military is like that. You leave behind open books and unfinished chapters wherever you go.

Ribbons are associated with special moments throughout our lives. Holiday packages festooned with them hint of the treasures to be found inside. At one time only the French nobility could afford ribbons. During the 17th century they were made in European homes of peasant farmers on looms well before the first factory in the United States was founded in 1815. Both France and later England used ribbons to signify nobility and at one point, English Parliament set aside the wearing of them by only the aristocracy.

The customary ribbon color for the US military POWS/MIAS is red and is still practiced on military installations. Somewhere along the line the yellow ribbon over took the red ribbon as a sign of loyalty to family and friends. Today it's a symbol to welcome home loved ones after having been away for a long time under particularly difficult circumstances such as war or prison. Yellow ribbons sprang onto the scene in 1981 when fifty-two Iran hostages were returned after 444 days of captivity.

So how did the yellow ribbon symbol become linked with the hostages? On January 28, Penelope Laingen, the wife of, Bruce Laingen the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in Tehran, appeared on a CBS broadcast outside her home in Bethesda, Maryland. "It just came to me," she said, "to give people something to do, rather than throw dog food at Iranians. I said, ‘Why don't they tie a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree.' That's how it started."

The song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” composed in 1972 by Irwin Levine and L. (Larry) Russell Brown was the source of Laingen’s inspiration. The following year Tony Orlando and Dawn cut their all-time classic and by April it was number one on the pop charts. It seems the song is a modern rendition of a story heard by one of the songwriters when he was in the United States Army. The song outlines the tale of a convict riding the bus homeward after three years in prison. In a conversation with the bus driver he explains how he wrote his sweet heart asking her to tie a yellow ribbon on a roadside oak tree as a sign that she will have him back. The other passengers become aware of the ex-con’s predicament and as the bus arrives everyone is on the edge of their seats wondering what his sweetheart has decided. Unable to bear the sight of no ribbon in its branches the convict covers his eyes as the tree comes into view only to hear a cheer go up and looks to see that, in fact, the tree is awash in yellow ribbons.

The writers of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" have been asked on many occasions what inspired them to write this song. "‘Larry had heard the story in the Army,'" said Levine in a discussion reprinted in the Washington Post on January 27, 1981. "‘I liked it, so we tried it. We wrote it and put it on a cassette. But then we didn't like it–it just didn't work–so we threw it away. I wish I would have kept it so I could compare it to the other one, but I recorded over it.' But three weeks later, Levine said their song ideas had run out, so they resolved to take another go at ‘Yellow Ribbon.' They rewrote it, rewrote the music, and were pleased. "

Most of the previous information is from folklorists who do research for the Library of Congress. However there are several web tales out there that readers may find interesting. Here is one example that is relatively similar to most of them that lay claim to the verity that music historians say the tradition of wearing yellow ribbons to an American Civil War song popular during the 19th Century. Some corrections in grammar and spelling have been made:

    The tradition of wearing yellow ribbons may date back to the Civil War when the U.S. Cavalry was symbolized by yellow piping on their uniforms. Women who were married to or dating soldiers wore yellow ribbons as they waited for their sweethearts to return from battle. It served a dual purpose because of the reputation of the Calvary soldier: it kept away unwanted suitors and also provided a threat of reprisal from a Calvary soldier should any harm come to his girl.

    The early song was done for cadence as the soldier rode in formation. Historians believe this practice was commemorated in the 1917 song "Around Her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." The yellow ribbon debuted on movie screens in 1949 in the cavalry epic, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, starring John Wayne and Joanne Dru. The drama of the undermanned U.S. Cavalry post far out in the Indian country is centered on a veteran captain about to return. It develops into a saga of the Cavalry, its hard-bitten men, loyal wives and unusual intrigues.

    Another story also comes to the folk tradition from that time. Andersonville, or Camp Sumter as it was officially known, was one of the largest of many established prison camps during the American Civil War. It was built early in 1864 after Confederate officials decided to move the large number of Federal prisoners kept in and around Richmond, Virginia, to a place of greater security and a more abundant food supply. During the 14 months the prison existed, more than 45,000 Union Solders were confined there. Of these, almost 13,000 died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure to the elements.

    Reportedly, a member of the 9th Ohio Cavalry who had been a Confederate prisoner for a number of years wrote to his wife upon his release. To coincide with the Cadence song and the supposed tradition of wearing a yellow ribbon, the man wrote that rather than wear the yellow ribbon she was to tie it to either a signpost or tree that was near the train station. The soldier told the others on the train as they traveled to take the released prisoners of war home about his letter and his not wanting to upset her life without him. The rest becomes a folktale passed down mostly through storytelling and word of mouth.

Unfortunately historians can't support or document the prior story with evidence like letters to loved ones or journals from that era. If the convention of wearing yellow ribbons can’t be traced to the Civil War, where does it come from? Perhaps it’s not a custom at all, and not from a song. Maybe it has its beginnings as a folk tale--a legend, actually:
    It is the story of two men in a railroad train. One was so reserved that his companion had difficulty in persuading him to talk about himself. He was, he said at length, a convict returning from five years' imprisonment in a distant prison, but his people were too poor to visit him and were too uneducated to be very articulate on paper. Hence he had written to them to make a sign for him when he was released and came home. If they wanted him, they should put a white ribbon in the big apple tree which stood close to the railroad track at the bottom of the garden, and he would get off the train, but if they did not want him, they were to do nothing and he would stay on the train and seek a new life elsewhere. He said that they were nearing his hometown and that he couldn't bear to look. His new friend said that he would look and took his place by the window to watch for the apple tree, which the other had described to him.

    In a minute he put a hand on his companion's arm. "There it is," he cried. "It's all right! The whole tree is white with ribbons."

This passage comes from a 1959 book on prison reform entitled Star Wormwood, and the eminent Pennsylvania jurist Curtis Bok wrote it. Bok states that Kenyon J. Scudder told first superintendent of Chino penitentiary who related it to him. Some experts take this proof that the story was in oral tradition as early as the mid-1950s. Perhaps this is the source of legend that songwriter L Russell Brown heard in the Army.

The fact is, according to studies published by the late Gerald E. Parsons, longtime librarian of the Folklife Reading Room of the Library of Congress, even though the words of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," along with the folktale on which they were based, tell the story of a paroled convict's prospective homecoming, not that of a soldier stationed overseas, the practice didn't exist at all before 1980. In the same way, the Iran hostage crisis involved civilians held captive on foreign soil as opposed to military personnel in combat. However once the fundamental association had been made between the dilemma of Americans endangered in a foreign country and displaying yellow ribbons as a form of homage, the stage was set for a new application -- first in 1991 to the troops who fought in the Gulf War, and a dozen years later, to U.S. forces sent back to the region.

The reality is that this shift took place Gerald Parsons says, lending more weight to the credibility that the yellow ribbon is a folk tradition in spite of its brief historical lifespan. "Ultimately," he writes, "the thing that makes the yellow ribbon a genuinely traditional symbol is neither its age nor its putative association with the American Civil War, but rather its capacity to take on new meanings, to fit new needs and, in a word, to evolve."

Sources:

Offray Ribbon: History:
www.offray.com/hist.html
Accessed Apr 17 2003

Yellow Ribbon 'Tradition' Is of Recent Origin, Folklorists Say:
www.urbanlegends.miningco.com/cs/historical/ a/yellowribbon.htm
Accessed Apr 17 2003

Yellow Ribbons: Ties with Tradition:
www.loc.gov/folklife/ribbons/ribbons
Accessed Apr 17 2003

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