This story is said to be true. It happened so many years ago until a variation of the story was made famous by Tony Orlando's song, "Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Oak Tree." This story variation was written by Robert Schuller.
Three teenagers boarded a bus in New Jersey. Seated on the bus was a quiet, poorly dressed man who sat alone and silent. When the bus made its first stop, everybody got off except this one man, who remained aloof and alone. When the kids came back on the bus, one of them said something nice to him and he smiled shyly.
At the next bus stop, as everybody got off, the last teenager turned and said to the man, "Come on. Get off with us. At least stretch your legs."
So he got off. The teenagers invited him to have lunch with them. One of the kids said, "We are going to Florida for a weekend in the sun. It is nice in Florida, they say."
He said, "Yes, it is."
"Have you been there?"
"Oh, yes," he said, "I used to live there."
One said, "Well, do you still have a home and family?"
He hesitated. "I - I don't know," he said finally.
"What do you mean, you don't know?" the teenager persisted.
Caught up by their warmth and their sincerity, he shared this story with them:
"Many years ago, I was sentenced to Federal prison. I had a beautiful wife and wonderful children. I said to her, 'Honey, don't write to me. I won't write to you. The kids should not know that their Dad is in prison. If you want to, go ahead and find another man - somebody who will be a good father to those boys.'
"I don't know if she kept her part of the bargain. I kept mine. Last week when I knew for sure I was getting out, I wrote a letter to our old address; it's just outside of Jacksonville. I said to her, 'If you are still living there and get this letter, if you haven't found anyone else, and if there is a chance of you taking me back - here is how you can let me know. I will be on the bus as it comes through town. I want you to take a piece of white cloth and hang it in the old oak tree right outside of town. '
When they got back on the bus and they were about ten miles from Jacksonville, all the teenagers moved to this man's side of the bus and pressed their faces against the windows. Just as they came to the outskirts of Jacksonville there was the big oak tree. The teenagers let out a yell and they jumped out of their seats. They hugged each other and danced in the center of the aisle. All they said was, "Look at it! Look at it!"
Not a single white cloth was tied to the tree. Instead, there was a white bed sheet, a white dress, a little boy's white trousers, and white pillowcases! The whole tree was covered with dozens of pieces of white cloth!
The man got the kind of big welcome that the Prodigal Son received from his father who said, "My son that was lost is found and is home again."