Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Faded, Tattered Yellow Ribbon

At the top of our street there is a public park overlooking Army Corps of Engineer created Lake Underhill, the fill having been used during WWII to create the landing strips on then Orlando Air Base, now Executive Airport. It is a beautiful place providing a view of the modern, concrete bridge of the East-West Expressway spanning the lake and the airport runways lying beyond. The park is home to joggers, animals taking yuppy/guppy and retiree owners alike for walks, sweating overweight walkers brandishing terry cloth head wraps and NFL ball towels promising themselves they'll lose that 50 pounds, children running from exercise station to exercise station, eager to show their flexibility on the parallel bars.

Across the street on the west side of heavily traveled Lake Underhill Drive there is a triangular segment of the park where grass covers the mounds of fill dirt removed from the former swamp land now constituting Lake Underhill's southern shore. Among the grassy mounds, golfers find enough space to practice their putting and dog owners teach their canines to catch Frisbees in mid-air. There is also a modicum of trees - magnolias, maples, live oaks and tabebuias planted by the city - which survived the brutal assault of Hurricane Charley two years ago. The category two storm produced a category 5 microburst in its inner vortex as it blew through our formerly leafy neighborhood at 24 mph (an unheard of pace for a hurricane) taking out trees throughout the neighborhood but cutting a fairly clear path up Roberta Avenue - our street and our house - and then through the formerly tree laden west end of the park.

One of the surviving maples left in that portion of the park stands within feet of the concrete and stainless steel art deco sign the city erected at the corner of Roberta and Lake Underhill to announce to passersby that they had entered the "Lake Underhill Neighborhood." Three years ago when the U.S. invaded Iraq, someone had tied a yellow ribbon around that maple tree the week of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Central Florida, like much of the rest of American, was awash in a tide of a mindless sort of militarism confused for patriotism. With polls showing nearly 90% of Americans had allowed themselves to be seduced by George Bush's lies, yellow ribbons sprouted from trees all over town, supposedly a means of showing "support for the troops." Of course, that might have been more convincing had not the magnetic car bumper sticker version shown up primarily on the SUVs and Hummers whizzing by the yellow ribbon clad tree on Lake Underhill Drive, telling evidence of the real reason America invaded oil-rich Iraq.

I remember walking past that newly placed ribbon during those first few testosterone driven days of shameless cheerleading on every broadcast outlet in America (Shock and Awe! Man, that's as good as it gets!), harboring angry desires to rip the ribbon down from that tree, unwilling to let my neighborhood admit it had bought into the smarmy sentimentality of fetishizing young boys and girls - most were not men or women, truth be told - as heroes and heroines if not martyrs. I remember thinking "If you truly want to support these young people, get your ass into the street to protest the squandering of their lives by this idiot prince who has whipped you into a frenzy over a lie."

Discretion being the better part of valor, I never took the ribbon down. It wasn't mine to do with as I saw fit though its placement in a public park was questionable. Three years later, I wish I had. The years have not been kind to the yellow ribbon or the soldiers for whom it supposedly stood. I have watched as the ribbon has sagged, faded, molded in the humid Florida climate and begun to fray around the ends. The boys and girls have not come home, save those whose flag draped caskets we aren't allowed to show on our TVs (by G-d, we aren't gonna repeat the mistake of Vietnam, are we?) and those whose fire and IED ravaged bodies and minds will never again allow them to see themselves as fully human. But the ribbon - and the occupying forces, besieged by warring factions who can only agree on their desire for the Americans to leave - remain. And the magnetic yellow ribbons, some now joined by red, white and blue version on the SUV rear doors, whiz by the tattered yellow ribbon on Lake Underhill Drive on gas that now costs nearly 1.5 times its cost at the time of the invasion.

It is a pathetic sight, that poor yellow ribbon. In days gone by, I had wished to snatch it down in righteous indignation over a people who had bought into a lie when deep at heart they knew better. Today, I simply wish to put it - and all of us - out of our misery.

As I walked home this unseasonably hot June day when the mercury would hit 96, no cooling thunderstorm in sight (but rumors of an early season hurricane next week beginning to titter on the airwaves), two thoughts occurred to me. First, being a man who loves symbols as I do, it dawned on me that the tattered, faded yellow ribbon was probably a particularly potent symbol for the United States of America in 2006. Once the nation who proudly offered its ideals of democracy, equality and justice for all to the world, America has become a nation this recovering lawyer no longer recognizes. In the name of a "war on terror," whatever a war on any idea might be, my countrymen no longer offer trials to the accused. We not only torture prisoners of war in the same prisons tyrants named Saddam formerly tortured them, we ship them all over the world under cover of darkness and secrecy to do so. The American madam has many johns in this enterprise - places with the same kinds of ideals Americans once embraced such as Ireland, Germany, France and Britain - sharing her shame and her evil. Fear makes a particularly poor basis for public policy.

Meanwhile at home, the resident of the White House attempts to divert our attention from his black hole in the middle east by making war on the 3-10% of the population who are gay or lesbian, intent on making political hay through an ill-fated attempt to amend the Constitution to actually single out a group for discrimination. And like Pavlov's dogs, his religious right supporters line up to respond: Queers…drool! Abortion….drool! Ten Commandments in courthouses….drool! When the resident is not preoccupied with saving marriage from activist judges (those few liberal activist judges that remain, that is…conservative activist judges are OK by George, the Unready and his handlers) his minions in the Congress make war on the 7 million undocumented aliens whose labor enables the privileged life most of us overweight, self-indulged Americans see as a matter of entitlement. The tattered, yellow ribbon, clinging to a tree for a cause long ago lost sight of, is indeed a good symbol of this devolution, this unreasonable facsimile of America.

The other thought that occurred to me as I thought about the yellow ribbon and its origins was that the original song, recorded by Tony Orlando, was actually about a man who had been in prison. In Orlando's song, the yellow ribbon was the sign that his lover - we never know if they were married - who would have to bear the shame of an ex-convict partner would be willing to forgive him for that shaming and take him back. While the subject of the song had "done (his) time" and was "coming home," the question raised by the songwriter was whether his wrongdoing and subsequent imprisonment had so badly damaged his relationship with his significant other that it was beyond repair. He might have beeen freed from his literal prison bars but whether he'd be able to live a life worth living was another question.

Will the America I knew and loved as a child ever come back? Has the US reached the tipping point at which the Roman Empire once arrived in which its republic simply atrophied and died only to be replaced by an empire driven by greed and lust for power? Is that tattered yellow ribbon a warning sign we Americans are capable of recognizing and heeding or is it the epitaph for an America which has lost its way and its will to be a people devoted to democracy, equality and justice for all? Already the pundits speak of how long it will take America to repair George the Unready's damage to the nation and to our relations with the rest of the world. But is it possible that this time, unlike the post-Reagan recovery, the wounds are too deep?

I suppose I am willing to indulge myself with a modicum of hopefulness that we will heed the signs, that we will repair the damage, that there will be a fresh yellow ribbon on the tree when our train arrives from our self-imposed prison of late. Time will tell. But the recent willingness of the American public to be diverted by divisive non-issues, to buy the spin, to be whipped into a militaristic frenzy by obvious lies, to stand silently while elections have been stolen and losers have assumed power - none of this bodes well for the America I once knew, loved ….and believed in. More often than I'd like, I have to wonder if this yellow ribbon song will have a happy ending.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.