The green roots of the yellow ribbon tradition




Did you ever wonder why people wear yellow ribbons to express their respect for soldiers? Was it that song from decades ago? That one about the yellow ribbon on the oak tree?

Is that also (if you will) the root of the new movie called The Yellow Handkerchief, starring William Hurt and Twilight's Kristen Stewart, which carries this mysterious obsession with yellow garments into the 21st century?

Not quite. Erin Dignam (the screenwriter of The Yellow Handkerchief) is just the latest, and not even the first person with Irish roots, to tell a new version of this time-tested story.

Some believe this story begins in biblical days, or that its origins lie in the John Wayne movie "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

What can’t be denied is that the legend grew thanks to a son of Belfast who scoured the gritty streets of New York City for great stories.

To begin to unwrap this obsession with yellow ribbons, let us step back in time and belly up to the bar at the Lion’s Head, the bygone Greenwich Village watering hole best known as a haven for “drinkers with writing problems.”

It was there that the likes of Frank and Malachy McCourt, Newsday’s Dennis Duggan and so many other Irish American ink-stained wretches bent their elbows.

Perhaps the best known of the bunch was Pete Hamill, author, columnist, son of parents from Belfast.

Hamill recently explained that he was at the Lion’s Head one evening when he heard a durable tale which no one ever seemed to have actually written down.

The details might have changed with each dramatic telling. But the core of the story was more or less the same. A quiet man gets out of jail and wonders if his onetime wife will take him back.

In 1971, Hamill was writing (of all things) a short story column for the New York Post. The column was called “The Eight Million,” a reference to all of the souls living in the five boroughs of New York.

In October of ’71, Hamill published a column about college-age kids who get on a bus at 34th Street in Manhattan and head off to Florida. A man named Vingo is also on the bus with them.

The kids try to engage the mysterious stranger in conversation, but nothing ignites. That is, until one asks, “Are you married?”

Vingo replies, “I don’t know.”

Vingo finally opens up, “I told her, I said, Martha, I understand if you can’t stay married to me. I told her that. I said I was gonna be away a long time and that if she couldn’t stand it, if the kids kept askin’ questions, if it hurt her too much, well, she should just forget me.”

Vingo simply had one condition.

“We used to live in this town, Brunswick, just before Jacksonville, and there’s a big oak tree just as you come into town, a very famous tree, huge. I told her that if she’d take me back, she should put a yellow handkerchief on the tree and I’d get off and come home.”

And so the story ends with the revelation -- will he stay on the bus or go home?

Will there be a yellow handkerchief tied to the big oak tree?

Swiftly the Hamill column was a smash. People all over the country got a look at it when Reader’s Digest published it.

A TV movie starring James Earl Jones, based on the yellow handkerchief story, was aired. A Japanese film was also produced.

But it may well have been the 1973 song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” sung by Tony Orlando, which has stuck in people’s minds for the longest time.

When the song came out (two years after the Hamill column), the Vietnam War was in its last regrettable stages. Many soldiers had not yet come home.

Some people linked yellow ribbons to the hope that a loved one would return from southeast Asia. It is a tradition that went nationwide during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, and has stuck with Americans through the first Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan.

So now we have a new movie, "The Yellow Handkerchief." Every charity from autism to breast cancer to AIDS uses some form of ribbon as its colorful symbol.

This might never have been the case, however, if Pete Hamill was not listening so closely one night in the Lion’s Head.

(Contact Tom Deignan at tomdeignan@earthlink.net or facebook.com/tomdeignan)

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