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The Straight Dope 

While watching a recent World War II documentary, I noticed the U.S. flag with 48 stars in a six-by-eight matrix. Of course now we have 50 stars, with alternating rows of five and six. This raises several questions. When we add a state, who makes the decision on how the stars will be arranged? Is there a Senate subcommittee on star arrangement? Or is it done by some bureaucratic pencil pusher--another example of the American public having no say in matters of national importance? Finally, if the District of Columbia becomes a state, how the heck would one arrange the stars? Isn't this the real reason D.C. will never become a state? --Mark Thornquist, Seattle

Could be--I always thought that Jesse Jackson stuff was a smoke screen myself. Fortunately, I have solved the problem. But first this: the general appearance of the flag--13 stripes, a star for each state, etc--was set by Congress in 1818. The star arrangement, however, is up to the president. The deliberations within the Eisenhower administration on this burning issue prior to the admission of Alaska and Hawaii were cloaked in secrecy. So we don't know if Ike convened a late-night cabinet meeting, consulted experts in the science of tesselation (mosaic pattern arrangement), or just worked it out himself with David's blocks. No matter--in the end, it was a completely arbitrary exercise of presidential power.

Undemocratic? Sure, but if you'd seen the cockeyed suggestions sent in by the public, you'd say it was just as well. Stars in star patterns, stars spelling out USA--one shudders. In fact, until relatively recent times, half-arsed star arrangement has been something of a national curse. At the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina in 1781, American troops carried a banner with 13 stars in a dweebish arrangement of two rows of four, one row of three, and the remaining two stars shoehorned in, one above the other, on the far right. Worse, the flag had alternating red and blue stripes, with blue eight-pointed stars arranged on a white field. Not surprisingly, the troops obliged to fight under this pathetic rag got massacred. I'd have been too embarrassed even to show up.

Things did not improve as time went on. The 31-star flag that Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor with in 1853 had five vertical columns of five plus one dippy- looking column of six crammed in on the extreme left. Even stranger was the 33-star flag that flew over Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War in 1861 (actually there were 34 states at the time--they weren't big on details then). It had an indescribable mess of stars that can only be attributed to hallucinogenic molds in the hardtack.

Luckily, today we've got people like me to keep things on a professional basis. A 51-star flag? No prob. When President Quayle calls in 1997, I'll tell him to make it six rows with alternating rows of nine and eight. For 52 stars try eight rows, alternating six and seven, and for 53 seven rows, alternating eight and seven. That takes care of D.C. and Puerto Rico and leaves us a spare for emergencies. Semper paratus, that's me.

BATTLE OF THE DECADES

It is extremely disappointing to find you spouting the line that the '0' year is the end of the decade [September 14]. So let's get this straight: there is no such thing as "starting a new decade"--a decade is any ten years, and you can define it from May 25, 1985, to May 24, 1995, if you so desire. The "80s," however, is that decade every century during which the numeral "8" appears next-to-last in the year number. So don't try to be so much more clever than the rest of us all the time, OK? --Kenny Mostern, Oakland, California

I try not to be, Kenny, but sometimes it's a stretch. Let's take this slowly. I assume we're agreed that the next century starts on January 1, 2001, not January 1, 2000. (If not, there's no point in continuing.) Call me wacky, but it seems only reasonable that the start of the new century and the start of the new decade ought to coincide. Granted there's no harm done if they don't. No harm if your socks don't match, either. But some people it bugs. Sorry if I'm such a fussbudget.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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