Tying a 'Yellow Ribbon' around the world

The first time Tony Orlando & Dawn performed “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” they sang it in front of 70,000 people at the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day 1973. Texas went on to beat Alabama 17-13, and “Yellow Ribbon” went on to sell 7 million copies worldwide, topping the pop charts in the United States and the United Kingdom.On that particular day, Texans were honoring a group of servicemen who had been POWs in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos, including future Arizona senator and presidential candidate John McCain.Orlando spoke with The American Legion Magazine about that first performance, how “Yellow Ribbon” became an anthem of hope, and how he continues to honor U.S. troops and veterans.Q: Take us back to that day on Jan. 1, 1973, when you first performed “Yellow Ribbon.”A: Little did I know how much of a life-changing experience it would be, but I was up on stage and I opened the show. The record was a hit, but not No. 1 yet. And on the 50-yard line, I see these 500-plus heroes. And they are clapping along, but weakly, because it wasn’t too long after the Hanoi Hilton. There was one guy who wasn’t moving. So I walked up after the show and said “Sir, my name is Tony Orlando. Did I do anything to offend you? Because I noticed all your buddies were clapping along, and you were just ….”And he said, “Oh, Tony, I’m so sorry. My shoulders have been dislocated so many times that I can’t clap my hands. But what you didn’t see, Tony, was that I was tapping my toes inside my shoes.”Q: How was your trip to Iraq last year when you went over there to entertain our troops?A: I spent nine days there with Armed Forces Entertainment. They took us to Camp Victory and we stayed at one of Saddam’s palaces. And I spoke with this young lady who was a sergeant, with a 2-year-old daughter back home with her husband. I said, “Your husband is back home and you’re here carrying an M16? You just created the title for a country song: ‘She Has the Face of an Angel and Carries an M16.’”After our shows, we had two- to three-hour lines of soldiers wanting autographs. A lot of them said they didn’t know who I was, but it was one of the greatest shows they ever saw. And that was the greatest gift I ever received back from an audience: these young troops serving our country, who really didn’t know the performer by name, but knew “Yellow Ribbon,” knew what it meant, and then we delivered this show that they loved. Of all the things I’ve ever done in 50 years of show business, that’s the one thing I’ll carry with me to my grave.Q: Is there a particular story you’d like to share about the wounded troops you visited overseas?A: Going home, we went back to Germany at Rhein-Main Air Base to visit wounded troops. And I’m told that there’s a young man on the second floor who just got there yesterday.When I get up there, his mother and father are standing outside his room. And I go into the room, and there are tubes coming out of this young man. His father said his son was in Balad and an IED went off, and he lost his arms and legs. So I look over at his mother and I said, “Mom, he has survived. He’s gonna make this, he’s gonna be OK.”She said, “I was prepared for my son to die, but I wasn’t prepared for this.” And I was hit by a truth that hadn’t even occurred to me: there was one thing worse than death for her, and that was what happened to her son.It’s a funny thing how God works, but about five weeks before I went to Baghdad, I went to an event in Los Angeles honoring our veterans and fallen soldiers. And there was a man there, Dean Kamen, who had invented the Segway personal transporter. And he talked to the audience about how the Pentagon asked him to make a prosthesis that was touch-sensitive.So he meets with a group of amputees from this war, and he decides he’s got to make this arm that will pick up a grape without squishing it, and a razor without dropping it. Then he invents a pair of legs that are computerized, that the central nervous system sends a message to, and they walk.So I told that mom about these inventions. “What if I told you that your son, on a Christmas morning, could walk across the living room, bend over, pick up your gift from under the tree, walk over to you, untie the ribbon, pull the box apart, and take the gift out and say, ‘Merry Christmas, Mom!’”The parents got in touch with Dean, and he went to Walter Reed to meet Brendan. And I think he’s a candidate for those arms and legs.Q: How did “Yellow Ribbon” become so popular as an anthem of such enduring hope?A: That song was never intended to be written for war or for a captured prisoner. It really was a love story written by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown. Irwin wrote the lyrics and Brown wrote the melody. They wrote several Tony Orlando & Dawn hits. It was a love song and a song of forgiveness.Then we get to the Iranian hostage crisis, 444 days of Americans being held captive in Iran. Penny Langdon, the wife of Bruce Langdon – at that time the ambassador in Iran – tied a yellow ribbon around her tree, and told the press she wasn’t taking it off until her husband came home. So every single night, for 444 days, America saw the news with Walter Cronkite, and an American flag behind him with a yellow ribbon tied around it.When they came home to the Reagan White House in 1980, not only was the plane strewn with yellow ribbons, but so was Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House itself. And that was the day that the yellow ribbon really became a symbol for this country of homecoming and reunion, and welcoming and love.And the symbol has held through, all the way through Desert Storm, through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you go to most military bases, you will see yellow ribbons everywhere. I was just a mailman who delivered the letter. The rest of it is the American people. They made that symbol, and I look upon it with awe.But the writers that wrote the song, they were the ones walking around in total shock. It’s a tremendous feeling of pride to know that you are part of something that became such a significant symbol of love for the brothers and sisters of our nation.You know what the yellow ribbon does? It makes America my hometown.Q: Tell us about the salute to veterans you headline in Branson, Mo., each Veterans Day.A: In 1993, I started a show in Branson called “Yellow Ribbon Salute to Veterans.” That was post-Desert Storm, so there was no war at the time. So I wanted to make my shows on Nov. 11 free for all veterans and their families. No questions asked.Six hundred showed up the first year. After that first show, we had a waiting list of 5,000. Fourteen years later, we had 178,000 veterans in Branson for the weekend of Nov. 11 – the largest gathering of veterans in America. Each year, we give out the Yellow Ribbon Medal of Freedom. The first recipient was Steven Long (POW at the Hanoi Hilton whose cell was next to John McCain’s), the second was Bob Hope, and the third was Gerald Ford. We’ve had 100 Medal of Honor recipients in our audiences.Most kids grow up thinking of the word “veteran” as an old man with a flag, walking at a Veterans Day parade. But what organizations like The American Legion do is teach our young people what the word “veteran” really means: a person who has not only put his life on the line, but in peacetime is still willing to put his life on the line for this country.Philip M. Callaghan is media marketing director for The American Legion.