• The New York Post - Columnist Pete Hamill wrote a story that morphed into the Tony Orlando song about a yellow ribbon—and now a film, The Yellow Handkerchief.
The film "The Yellow Handkerchief" is loosely based on a column by Pete Hamill that appeared in The Post in October 1971. "I did a series of fictional columns called 'The Eight Million' and I heard a ver sion of this story at the Lion's Head," Hamill recalls, referring to a famous writers' bar in Green wich Village. "I scribbled notes in the john and later added specifics about kids going to Fort Lauderdale and learning something." It was reprinted in Readers Digest and was first adapted as a short film for TV starring James Earl Jones. In 1977, it was a fea ture film in Japan. "The way popular culture shifts, the song 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon,' which followed my column, really took over the original story," which folk lorists say has been traced back at least as far as the mid-1950s. "I once stopped at the Georgia border and they said, 'That's the original oak tree where the ribbons were.' Hamill never read a script for the movie, and wasn't consulted after he sold his share of the rights. "But I'm eager to see it," he says.
Here's his original column:
They were going to Fort Lauderdale, the girl remembered later. There were six of them, three boys and three girls, and they picked up the bus at the old terminal on 34th Street, carrying sandwiches and wine in paper bags, dreaming of golden beaches and the tides of the sea as the gray cold spring of New York vanished behind them. Vingo was on board from the beginning.
As the bus passed through Jersey and into Phillie, they began to notice that Vingo never moved. He sat in front of the young people, his dusty face masking his age, dressed in a plain brown ill-fitting suit. His fingers were stained from cigarettes and he chewed the inside of his lip a lot, frozen into some personal cocoon of silence.
Somewhere outside of Washington, deep into the night, the bus pulled into a Howard Johnson’s and everybody got off except Vingo. He sat rooted in his seat and the young people began to wonder about him, trying to imagine his life: perhaps he was a sea captain, maybe he had run away from his wife, he could be an old soldier going home. When they went back to the bus, the girl sat beside him and introduced herself.
“We’re going to Florida,” the girl said brightly. “You going that far?”
“I don’t know,” Vingo said.
“I’ve never been there,” she said. “I hear it’s beautiful.”
“It is,” he said quietly, as if remembering something he had tried to forget.
“You live there?”
“I did some time there in the Navy. Jacksonville.”
“Want some wine?” she said. He smiled and took the bottle of Chianti and took a swig. He thanked her and retreated again into his silence. After a while, she went back to the others and Vingo nodded in sleep.
In the morning they awoke outside another Howard Johnson’s, and this time Vingo went in. The girl insisted that he join them. He seemed very shy and ordered black coffee and smoked nervously, as the young people chattered about sleeping on beaches.
When they went back to the bus, the girl sat with Vingo again and after a while, slowly and painfully, with great hesitation he began to tell his story. He had been in jail in New York for the past four years, and now he was going home.
“Are you married?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” she said.
“Well, when I was in the can I wrote to my wife,” he said.
“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 could just forget me. Get a new guy — she’s a wonderful woman, really something — and forget about me. I told her she didn’t have to write me or nothing. And she didn’t. Not for three and a half years.”
“And you’re going home now, not knowing?”
“Yeah,” he said shyly.
“Well, last week, when I was sure the parole was coming through, I wrote her. I told her that if she had a new guy, I understood. But if she didn’t, if she would take me back she should let me know. 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. If she didn’t want me, forget it — no handkerchief and I’d go through.”
“Wow,” the girl said. “Wow.”
She told the others and soon all of them were in it, caught up in the approach of Brunswick, looking at the pictures Vingo showed them of his wife and three children — the woman handsome in a plain way, the children still unformed in the cracked, much-handled snapshot.
Now they were 20 miles from Brunswick and the young people took over window seats on the right side, waiting for the approach of the great oak tree. Vingo stopped looking, tightening his face into the ex-con’s mask, as if fortifying himself against still another disappointment. Then it was 10 miles and then five, and the bus acquired a dark hushed mood, full of silence of absence, of lost years, of the woman’s plain face, of the sudden letter on the breakfast table, of the wonder of children, or the iron bars of solitude.
Then, suddenly, all of the young people were up out of their seats, screaming and shouting and crying, doing small dances, shaking clenched fists in triumph and exultation.
All except Vingo.
Vingo sat there stunned, looking at the oak tree. It was covered with yellow handkerchiefs, 20 of them, 30 of them, maybe hundreds, a tree that stood like a banner of welcome blowing and billowing in the wind, turned into a gorgeous yellow blur by the passing bus. As the young people shouted, the old con rose from his seat, holding himself tightly, and made his way to the front of the bus to go home.