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Flag Urban Legends (U.S.)

Last modified: 2005-12-17 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | flag urban legend | urban legend | bullet | civilian flag | civil flag |
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Civilian Flag

Nathaniel Hawthorn's The Scarlet Letter" contains a description of an American Customs flag erroneously described as having 13 stripes, when in fact it has 16. One stripe for each state at the time the flag was introduced. Remember, this was before limiting the stripes to 13. The story also states that this indicated a civil operation rather than military. This statement is somewhat true, but not totally accurate. Yes customs is a civil authority, but this does not mean that all civil authorities use this flag. Also let us not forget that the Scarlet letter is a work of fiction and not a research document by any means and therefore should not be used as a primary source. Primary sources would include legislation and executive orders, these are non-existent for the flag described at this site. The research for the U.S. flag legislation has been thoroughly researched by vexillologists and I think it would be safe to say that there is no legislation or executive order for the flag described.

Another erroneous source goes on to say that the Civilian flag should have Blue stars on white, not vice versa, and shows the stars arranged in a pattern identical to the current 50 star American flag established in 1960. If as he claims the Civil flag has been out of use since the 1860s, then, lacking the enabling legislation, the pattern should have been stopped at 33 or 35 stars. He also states that prior to WW II, states only flew their own flags. This is simply not true. If the states were as sovereign as he is trying to indicate, state flags would have been in use since 1776, where in truth for most states no state flag existed until the late 19th century, 100 years after The Revolution.

In short, other than as a footnote of erroneous concepts and faulty research, the flag described has no place on the FOTW website.

Nathan Bliss, 28 July 1999

Contents of Ball Atop Flagpoles

There are some myths about ornaments used at the head of a flag pole. Some crazies started a myth in the 1950s that the round ball commonly found on the head of outdoor flag poles in the United States contained a razor, lighter, or flare to be used in the event of a Soviet takeover to destroy the flag. This is of course sheer fantasy. The balls were in use long before there was a Cold War. Besides that, getting at the ball would have required considerable effort. Another myth is that the flat headed finials were designed to provide landing guidance for Alien space vehicles. The fact that those caps had been used long before Alien vehicles were contemplated is explained by saying that individual aliens were commonly sent ahead of the main wave by several generations so that humans wouldn't think any thing unusual about flat headed flag poles.
Phil Abbey, 7 October 1998

One myth, apparently created during the Cold War, is that the ball at the top of a U.S. flagpole contains three items, all intended to keep the communists from capturing the flag. These are most commonly said to be a razor blade (to cut the flag from the halyards), a match (to light it), and a bullet (to shoot the attackers).

Although this is absurd on the face of it, there seems to be no end to the line of morons who believe it. I'm not calling anyone else who questions this myth a moron -- they're to be applauded for having the good sense to question it. It's those who believe it without questioning it that need to be put away. So the following points are intended for use by those who are confronted with this idiocy in answering the true believers:

  • There have been balls on flagpoles for centuries, long before there were communists or, for that matter, self-contained bullets or friction matches. They're there because someone discovered that flagpoles look better with a ball on top. (No, not to keep birds from perching--birds have no trouble at all perching on the ball on a flagpole.)
  • If you want to destroy the flag, why not just lower it by the halyards the normal way and use materials readily available on the ground to destroy it, or better yet take it with you? As opposed to trying to cut it apart and burn it while hanging from the top of the pole like a monkey.
  • OK, so you don't want to lower the flag because that would signify surrender. How on earth would you retrieve what's in the ball in the face of an enemy assault? Assuming you don't have a ladder(if you do, why can't you find some matches?), there are only two ways up -- climb the pole or have oneself hoisted up on the halyard. Maybe a professional acrobat could do the former, given time; we're talking about shinnying up a smooth metal pole or pulling yourself up a narrow rope 50 feet (15 meters) or higher, all with enemy troops shooting at you.
  • Let's suppose you're going up by being hoisted on the halyard. As you do that, the flag comes down--whoops, you've just surrendered. Anyway, the flag is now at ground level, so your friends can detach it using the clips and escape with it or destroy it as described above. You don't have any friends on the ground? Then how did you get to the top of the pole? Just try pulling yourself up a flagpole some time and see how easy that is.
  • Why the bullet? Are your friends on the ground just standing around watching, or are they fighting back? Oh, right, you're all alone and you're a world-class gymnast who can just climb up the pole or halyard 50 feet or more under fire. OK, well then, if you have a gun with you (that coincidentally is of the right caliber for the bullet), why didn't you load it before you started up? And a single bullet to deal with the Red hordes, fired accurately while clutching for dear life to the top of a pole with no obvious handholds, all while trying to hang on to a burning flag so that it can't fall and be captured?
That should be enough. I suspect that this question originated as one of those gag bits of phony trivia used in military academies and basic training to hassle new cadets and recruits, like sending a seaman recruit to the engine room to fetch a bucket of steam. The problem is that this particular joke had too much goofy political resonance for the gullible to realize it was a hoax.

So, when they ask you what's in the ball on the top of a flagpole,
tell them "only the bolt that holds it to the rest of the pole."

Joe McMillan, 17 October 2002

Eagle Faces ... Olive Branch (peace)/Arrows (war)

The eagle on the official U.S. Coat of Arms and seal has always faced dexter, toward the olive branch. (Some 19th century military colors had the arrows in the dexter claw or the eagle's head facing sinister, but this was not normal, nor was it ever the case on the great seal, nor did it ever have anything to do with wartime vs. peacetime.)

The Presidential coat of arms (the U.S. COA as depicted on the Presidential seal) formerly had the eagle facing sinister, toward the arrows. This design was incorporated into the 1916 Presidential flag. The direction of the head was reversed when the flag was redesigned in 1945, as much to have the eagle facing the honorable dexter direction as to have it looking toward the olive branches.

Joe McMillan, 5 February 2001