Yellow ribbons show up on cars

By Staff Writer
November 12, 2004

Yellow ribbons are making a comeback nationwide as hundreds of thousands of motorists decorate their trunks and bumpers with magnetic tributes.

Some are inscribed “Support Our Troops,” “Freedom Isn’t Free” or “God Bless America.” Others are plain yellow _ or red, white and blue or even camouflage _ and leave the message to the mind of the beholder. And that message, historians said, continues to evolve.

“I think the important thing about the yellow ribbons is that they have multiple levels of meaning,” said Jonathan Cook, who runs Irregular Times, a Web log and online forum, and is himself a ribbon vendor.

“When you put these things on your car, or wear a button on your jacket, you’re really having a discussion with your neighbors that you wouldn’t otherwise sit down with,” Cook said

Yellow ribbons became part of America’s auditory memory with the 1973 hit song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, yellow ribbons became synonymous with support for U.S. troops. That’s still their main meaning.

“I support the military in whatever it has to do,” said Nancy Bobowiec, an administrative specialist from Surf City, N.C., who sports the yellow and the red, white and blue ribbons on her car. “We have a lot to be grateful for, and people need to start recognizing it.”

Gary Potter, of Southlake, Texas, said he and his wife nearly bought out the shop at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where his son is in air traffic control school. The couple sent the ribbons to friends and family.

“It’s just a way to remind people that our soldiers are out there in harm’s way and to keep them in your mind and prayers,” Potter said. “You rarely find yourself in a situation where you can say, `Well, wow, isn’t it great what our boys are doing over in Iraq?’ It’s pretty simple to stick a magnet on your car.”

Potter, 56, who served in Vietnam, said the importance of supporting the military, even symbolically, shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Any recognition of what we were doing would have helped at the time,” he said of his own experience as a soldier. “It was tough being on the other side of the planet getting shot at and hearing news of protests. It made it hard to keep focus on what you were sent over there to do.”

There’s no telling how many ribbons are out there. Dwain Gullion, co-owner of Magnet America in Bennett, N.C., one leading producer, said he’d sold more than 100,000 since April 2003.

“It’s very similar to what happened after 9-11, when everyone had flags flying from their cars,” said John Matthews, who runs out of his home in Clinton, N.Y. “I think it’s a galvanizing moment where people are just trying to pull together.”

While “Support Our Troops” hardly seems controversial, some read a political message in it.

“If you think about it, we wouldn’t have them at all if it was just about supporting the troops,” said Cook of Irregular Times. “Who doesn’t support the troops?”

Cook, of Memphis, Tenn., thinks the ribbons ask people to support the war in Iraq and President Bush. So he decided to “fight ribbon with ribbons.” He claims to have sold more than 1,000 bearing slogans such as “Give Peace a Chance,” “No More Blood for Oil” and “Stop Global Warming.”

Harley Avis, 46, from Conshohocken, Pa., who’s for John Kerry, said the ribbons on his truck had nothing to do with politics.

“Our troops shouldn’t be forsaken,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve gone about the war the right way. But I support the men and women fighting it.”

Yellow ribbons became nationally symbolic during the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis when Penne Laingen, the wife of the senior U.S. diplomat detained there, tied them around the trees at her suburban Maryland home, calling for the hostages’ release. The gesture took off nationwide.

In 1975, Gail Magruder, the wife of Jeb Stuart Magruder, a Nixon White House aide who was convicted in the Watergate affair, had tied yellow ribbons to their home’s porch supports to welcome her husband home from jail.

According to Library of Congress folklorist Gerald Parsons, the earliest such usage of ribbons probably dates from the mid-`50s, in a story told by California prison superintendent Kenyon Scudder.

A newly released but nervous convict who was returning home wrote ahead asking whether he’d be welcome, according to Scudder. The ex-con asked his family to tie a white ribbon around an apple tree near the train station if he was welcome. If not, he’d stay on the train.

The con grew anxious as the train approached his hometown, Scudder recounted, so he asked another con to watch for him.

“It’s all right!” the second con assured him moments later. “The whole tree is white with ribbons.”

Posted to the web by Cecelia Francisco

Staff Writer

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