I thought that Denver radio talk-show host Alan Dumas was putting me on when he told me "The Tale of the Truck." He said an ex-Marine had called him with the strange story.
The caller claimed that the metal ball on top of flagpoles was called the "truck." Inside the truck, he said, on all official U.S. government buildings, two things were kept: a match and a bullet.These items supposedly were there so that the last American survivor facing an enemy attack could burn Old Glory before the invaders got their hands on it, and then shoot himself so he wouldn't fall into enemy hands.
Dumas told me he "voiced skepticism" about the story, and subsequently he got three more calls confirming it. First a former Navy chaplain called saying he'd heard the same story, then a teenage girl called to say that her father, who was an army reservist, had told it to her. Third, another Marine phoned in to say that a question about the truck had been on an exam he took in basic training.
I heard the story from Alan when I was a guest on his "Dumas After Dark" show, which is broadcast live from Muddy's Java Cafe in Denver. Somehow the atmosphere of that time and place seemed conducive to a put-on.
I dutifully took notes on the story, but I suspected it was a tale that Alan had invented to see if I'd fall for it. I was wrong about that.
Recently I heard from Dr. Whitney Smith, Executive Director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Mass. He asked whether I knew any flag-related legends and gave this example:
"A number of ex-military people have telephoned to inquire what is inside the finial - the decorative symbol at the top of the pole which is part of the regimental flag carried by troops.
"In fact, the finial is solid metal, but the legend is that it contains three objects: a grain of rice, a match and a silver bullet.
"The story goes that a soldier surrounded by the enemy can break open the finial and gain some strength from eating the rice. He then uses the match to burn the flag so it will not fall into enemy hands.
"Finally, he commits suicide with the bullet - whether to prevent his own capture or out of shame at having burned the flag is not made clear."
So Alan Dumas wasn't kidding! Actually, this version makes a bit more sense, because it would be much easier to reach the finial on a regimental flag than the top of a flagpole on a government building.
But what about the rice, the silver bullet and especially that odd meaning for the word "truck"?
I did what I should have done in the first place: I looked up "truck" in the Oxford English Dictionary. And there it was - not the legend, unfortunately, but at least verification of this special meaning of "truck":
"A circular or square cap of wood fixed on the head of a mast or flagstaff, usually with small holes or sheaves for halliards."
This is listed as a "nautical" usage, with the first sample quotation, from 1626, mentioning "the trucke or flagge staffe." There are several other such references.
For example, in "Two Years Before the Mast," R.H. Dana's 1840 classic, he wrote, "We painted her, both inside and out, from the truck to the water's edge."
Or, more colorfully, in an 1899 quotation, "The second mate ordered me to go up and reeve the signal halliards in the mizzen truck."
My guess is that the word "truck" was applied earlier to various wheels or rollers used to move heavy equipment around, and was later used for the pulley guiding the rope that hoists the flag up the pole.
When a finial shaped like a ball or ornament was added to the pole, it too was called a truck.
But who knows where the stories about grains of rice, matches and silver bullets stored inside the truck came from.
"Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.