ALBANY, N.Y. - Ribbons we wore on our chests proclaiming support for everything from AIDS awareness to breast cancer survivors are now stuck to the bodies of our cars.

Yellow and red, white and blue ribbon magnets proclaiming "Support Our Troops" in cursive script are the latest incarnation of car decorations.

Although ribbons have evolved into a new magnetic form, they still provide the same emotional outlet and expression of community as the little scraps pinned to our lapels. "It's a statement saying we're incomplete and we won't be complete until this person comes home," says Jack Santino, a professor of folklore and American studies at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. "The yellow ribbon hit on a need to communicate this feeling, and there's a sense of creating community with it."

Ribbons provide a media-friendly image symbolizing public awareness and support for a cause, explains Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. A sea of yellow ribbons is more dramatic than a single person simply stating his or her support for a cause.

During World War II, Americans felt the consequences of war every day, Altschuler says, but today most Americans - except those with family or friends overseas have escaped sacrifice. So people turn to symbols to show support.

"One might say the yellow ribbon is the only thing they have," Altschuler says.

Ribbons may have gotten their start with a folk legend about a convict's homecoming, according to the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. The earliest published version is in a 1959 book on prison reform by Pennsylvania jurist Curtis Bok, who was told the story by Kenyon J. Scudder, the first superintendent of the Chino penitentiary in California.

According to the story, a man returning from prison asked his family to tie a white ribbon to a tree at the train station if they welcomed his return. Too nervous to look, the man asked a fellow passenger to watch for him. When they pulled into the station the tree was white with ribbons. He was still loved and embraced.

It was relatively recently that ribbons became a symbol expressing support of soldiers serving overseas, Altschuler says. This transformation of meaning began a few years after Tony Orlando crooned the hit song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ol Oak Tree," which sold 3 million records in three weeks in May 1973. Although the songwriters said they came up with the idea on their own, the first story of a yellow ribbon was published in the New York Post in 1971 and was made into a television drama starring James Earl Jones in 1972.

When Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979, people began displaying yellow ribbons in solidarity with those held. This was the first display of yellow ribbons as we know them today, Santino says.

"By the time of the first Gulf War there was a direct association the yellow ribbon referred to troops that were away," Santino says.

Barbara Simmons of Halfmoon, N.Y., the patriotic instructor for the Ladies Auxiliary of the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Memorial VFW Post 1498, is continuing the tradition by selling yellow ribbon magnets. When she drives around in her Pontiac Bonneville decorated with four magnets, people often ask where they can get one.

"I was driving down the road and a lady asked `Where did you get those stickers?"' Simmons says. "I said they're not stickers, they're magnets. And then I met her in a parking lot and she bought one." Profits from the magnets sold for $4 each buy deodorant, candy, lotion, soap and other items to be packed and shipped to soldiers in Iraq.

Other troop-support organizations in the region are also selling the magnets.

When fellow drivers spy her ribbon-decorated car, Simmons hopes "it sends a message (to) remember our troops and pray for them to come home," she says.

This message is echoed by many Americans who express support for the servicemen and women overseas, whether they support the policies that sent them there or not.

Bumper stickers proclaiming "Support our troops, bring them home" offer a specifically anti-war alternative.

"More than there has been in the past, there is an understanding that all Americans support the troops," Altschuler says.

John Amidon, treasurer of Veterans for Peace in Albany, doesn't support the war in Iraq. But he does support the people fighting it.

"Some of the messages are beautiful, like `Pray for our Troops,' Amidon says. "I support the troops and to that I say bring the troops home."

Whether you believe in the war or not, "You have to support our troops no matter what," Simmons agrees. "They're only doing their jobs. When the commander-in-chief gives them that order, they still have to do their job."

When Simmons' daughter Crystal Albert, who has returned from her second tour of duty in Iraq, sees yellow ribbons on cars, she feels proud.

"Being in the military hasn't always been a popular thing, and seeing someone with a 'Support Our Troops' ribbon reminds you that people do care and appreciate what you do," Albert says.

2004 Albany Times Union

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