You know it when you see it, and you probably see it several times a day if you’re driving pretty much anywhere in America. Affixed on top of the flagpole, above the flag itself, stands a golden sphere, decoratively topping it all off. The golden colored or bronze looking orb is not at the end of every flagpole, but it’s common enough and is usually found on top of larger and more official flagpoles. Known as a finial, an ornamental piece at the top of something, it has been referred to as a “truck” or a “truk” when specifically talking about a flagpole.

The story that circulates quite often varies in regards to who the bad guy is, but it generally goes something like this: during the Cold War, the golden ball at the end of a flagpole was installed outfitted with a razor, a match and a bullet. That way, if anyone’s position was overrun with Soviet soldiers, they could separate the stars from the stripes, respectfully burn the flag, and use the last bullet on themselves. I have heard the same story in the military, except that instead of the Russians it was Native Americans from the U.S.’s earlier days. I have also heard that there was a penny in the truck to represent American wealth, or another story that mentions a grain of rice, and even another that says a pistol is buried six paces away.

Well those stories are nothing but myths — and ones that I admittedly believed and propagated for quite a while. Even if the myth was true, it would have to be entirely symbolic. Climbing up a flagpole or lowering the entire thing somehow, just to open the truck and retrieve these objects would be a little time consuming in the event that the base was overrun. Even if the items were buried at the base of the flagpole, it wouldn’t make sense to sit there and dig for a while with bullets flying over your head. The more you think about it, the more ridiculous it seems to claim that this was ever in actual use.

Some also say that the truck represents the “shot heard ’round the world,” referring to the first round fired of the American Revolution.

The truth is, first and foremost, that they just look good. They also can keep water out of the hollow flagpoles during rainy weather. But what is the history behind it?

Well, finials have been used long before the Cold War and long before the American Revolution. It is also not exclusively used by Americans on their flagpoles. The word “truck” could have been used to refer to the wheel in the mechanism used to hoist flags upward, and was likely confused with the ornament on top at some point. It could have also been because the ornament on top looked like a “truck,” which used to mean a certain type of wheel. This usage of the word goes all the way back to the 1600s.

Though legends abound, no clear historical origin exists, and it is likely that it has just been ornamental from the beginning.

What myth did your NCO tell you about the flagpole?