The song that inspired the yellow ribbon symbol of hope for the safe return of the 52 American hostages almost was thrown away. Irwin Levine, the 42-year-old song writer, who with his partner, L. Russell (Larry) Brown, wrote "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree," said the two had "thrown it away" after writing it.

If it had not been tried again, "there wouldn't be all these ribbons all over the country right now," he mused.

Brown had told Levine a story about a man who was being released from jail. Unsure whether his lover wanted him back, he wrote to her, according to the song:

"Tie a yellow ribbon 'round the old oak tree, it's been three long years. Do you still want me? If I don't see a yellow ribbon 'round the old oak tree, I'll get on the bus, forget about us, put the blame on me, if I don't see a yellow ribbon 'round the old oak tree."

"Larry had heard the story in the Army and he told me about it," Levine said in a telephone interview Wednesday from his Livingston, N.J., home.

"I liked it, so we tried it. We wrote it and put it on a cassette. But then we didn't like it -- it just didn't work -- so we threw it away," he said. "I wish I would have kept it so I could compare it to the other one, but I recorded over it."

But three weeks later, Levine said, their song idea font had run dry, so they decided to take a second stab at "Yellow Ribbon." They rewrote it, rewrote the music and were pleased.

The song became something of a white elephant after they approached, and were rejected by agents for Ringo Starr, Bobby Vinton and other singers.

"Ringo Starr's people said they didn't like it and that we shouldn't show it around because it would make us look bad," Levine recalled. "Bobby Vinton had it in his briefcase for a while and didn't do it."

But then Tony Orlando and Dawn recorded it in 1973 and it soon topped the record charts.

"Yellow Ribbon" was timely and inspirational for the families of American prisoners of war in Vietnam. Across the country, families and friends wrapped yards and yards of ribbon around trees in their front yards.

Similarly, in December 1979, Penne Laingen, wife of hostage Bruce Laingen, tied a yellow ribbon around a tree on her lawn at her Maryland home. In the months that followed, the yellow ribbons came to symbolize that America had not forgotten the hostages.

The two women hostages released Tuesday, Elizabeth Ann Swift and Katheryn L. Koob, both wore yellow ribbons in their hair when they arrived in Wiesbaden, West Germany.

"I was watching the hostages on television . . . and when I saw the two women get out of the plane with the yellow ribbons in their hair . . . I got out of my house and went out to have a drink," Levine said.