News & Politics » Our Town

Yellow Ribbons

by

comment

"Look," she says, "There's another one of those yellow ribbons."

They're in the supermarket parking lot, man and wife, a cold and blustery Chicago day. Sixty years of this kind of weather toughens a man, makes him a little less tolerant.

He turns, hands in coat pockets, and takes in a faded Ford Escort with a bright yellow ribbon fluttering on its antenna. "They bought it somewhere," he says. "Someone's making a lot of money on this."

It's his father talking, still talking, after all these years, and he knows it.

Suddenly--and could it be he's just imagining it?--there is an angry man next to him, dark haired, hatless, young enough to be a Vietnam veteran. "Who's making a lot of money?" It's as if every thought in his head has been overheard.

So he forgets about a long dead father and considers the next move. It's like facing that chess game that goes with the computer. No matter what move you make, it always turns out to be wrong.

"I wasn't talking to you," he says, and the man who could be a veteran fires right back, "You don't support our troops?" And the only answer to this is a weak, "I didn't say that."

"It's guys like you," the man says--he's got a little wife with him, she's as bright and belligerent as he is--"it's guys like you that make me sick. If you don't like it here in America, you know what you ought to do?"

"Yeah, go back to Russia!"

And for one single instant in a frigid parking lot, two Americans face each other in blazing hatred.

It stays with him. In the supermarket he follows his wife as he always does, patiently, picking up items she trusts him to choose, dog food, cat litter, the milk, reading the labels on things she will not allow in her basket, frozen fajitas, imported crackers, chocolate cake mix. There's a woman in the dairy aisle with a yellow ribbon on her lapel, a stock boy on his knees stamping prices, another ribbon, there's a flag big as a garage door tacked on the wall, already looking grimy and shopworn. "You don't support our troops?" It's as if the answer were written on his face.

He thinks about his car, unprotected among all those yellow ribbons. No way of telling if there is still air in all four tires or if the windshield is still intact, or if someone has run a key the length of the body. It's not just that angry vet, it's everybody; he's been found out, his thoughts have leaked from his head, and yes, he knows the other side would gladly do the same things to our children if they could, and yes, he knows about the poison gas and the atom bomb factory and the wicked madman who must be overthrown, and yes, he knows that the young men and women fighting in the desert are good and decent and brave and ready to die on his behalf, and yes, he does hope they will defeat the enemy and return home alive and unharmed, but there is no taking back what sprang into his head, unbidden and hot as fire. No! I don't support our troops and goddamn it if I ever will!

The groceries check out at $47.89 and the girl who punches the register is so young she must call for help when she gets to the wine. The manager, wearing a yellow ribbon and a cheery smile, pushes the correct key for her. He's a young man, probably no older than those airmen his ribbon supports, but somehow he doesn't look like he could do what they do.

Who in hell could? the older man wonders. Who in hell would? Maybe everybody, it sometimes seems. In the parking lot the wind has picked up and every one of those plastic supermarket pennants is snapping and flapping as if it were trying to turn itself into an angry yellow flag.

He waits until he is back in the car with the doors safely shut and the engine running before speaking to his wife. "When did all this start?" he says. "Whose idea was it? Why yellow, what the hell's it supposed to mean?"

"It's for the hostages," she says.

"What hostages?" he says. "I thought they let them all go. This kind of stuff doesn't just happen. Somebody thinks it up."

The car radio is tuned to WLS. The afternoon guy no longer seems funny and outrageous. He has become sinister and dangerous, you can hear the gloating in his voice. "Tell me," he is saying to some adoring caller. "We have these tactical nuclear warheads, if it would save lives, if it would save American lives, what would you say to our using them?"

"Would they be neutron bombs?" the caller asks.

"No, no, no," says the talk show host. "Just regular nuclear warheads..."

The caller hesitates. "Well, if they were neutron bombs..."

If they were neutron bombs, you'd drop them, you bastard, the man thinks. Kill the people, spare the oil.

Driving down the side street he sees more ribbons, some tied around the trees, some to the porch railings. One house has two ribbons, an American flag, and a yellow-white-and-blue poster in the window asking voters to reelect Alderman Richard Mell. If you didn't know it before, you know it now. This is a popular war.

So he unpack his groceries and brings them into the house and wonders how conspicuous he must seem without an American flag in his window and he wonders what would happen if he were to burn a yellow ribbon on the steps of the Art Institute but he doesn't really want to know. Wouldn't it be better to be like the cat and dog and eagerly accept his supper without the slightest concern over what those well-dressed highly paid men and women are saying on the television screen?

Sorties, surgical strikes, degrading the enemy's ability, collateral damage; even human beings have trouble understanding language like that. "Some of these pictures are very graphic," Connie Chung warns. "Young children may find them upsetting..."

For the last several weeks the man has been waking up to strange sounds in the middle of the night. A muffled thumping that seems to come straight up through the pillow and go away when he sits up straight. At first he thought it was the furnace, you always worry about the furnace in the dead of a serious Chicago winter, but then he came to realize that it was from somewhere outside. Some kind of hidden machinery, maybe in one of the garages down the alley where they are always fixing cars. Perhaps a factory miles away, something that has existed years and years and only now is noticed. He lifts his head and listens very intently. If only the refrigerator would stop its rumble. If only the furnace would momentarily kick off. If only his wife, who sometimes sits up late, would turn down the television.

Then he lies back and waits. Again the mysterious thumps deep within his pillow, the sounds no one else hears. Half asleep, half awake, he imagines he is hearing bombs fall on the other side of the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

Add a comment