THERE MAY BE A FEW MISCREANTS OUT THERE WHO find sport in torching the Stars and Stripes. But the people who run the flag office at the U.S. Capitol find it pretty hard to believe. They're the folks who will fly your regulation American flag over the Capitol and return it for military ceremonies, July 4th celebrations, birthdays or whatever, and they say patriotism is still big business in the good old U.S. of A. They've flown enough flags to prove it -- more than 1.5 million since the flag program began in 1937.

"The only stipulation is that the flag must be the 50-star type," says flag office supervisor Christine Benza. (Now don't call her; the correct procedure if you want to have a flag flown over the Capitol -- anytime or on a particular day -- is to contact your congressman, who will arrange it.) Some people send their own flag, but most buy one through Congress at prices ranging from $6.58 for a 3-by-5-foot nylon flag to $18.25 for a 5-by-8 cotton one. Pretty reasonable, considering the elbow grease it takes to hoist the star-spangled banner to the top of a 20-foot flagpole. Just ask Joe Howe Jr., a crew chief who has worked the flag detail more than a decade.

"It can be tough, especially in windy or rainy weather," says Howe, pointing out half a dozen special flagpoles mounted above the West Front of the Capitol. "The small ones aren't bad, but a 4-by-6 or 5-by-8-foot flag can be kind of tricky, especially since you have to keep it in place for the 30 seconds that's specified."

Members of the flag detail work for the architect of the Capitol and have other maintenance duties as well. "We might have three or four laborers doing this from noon to 4 p.m. when we're handling 300 to 350 flags a day," Howe says. "But things pick up in the summer -- it's unmerciful in July -- so we could have seven to 10 people doing it full time, depending on the work load."

And Independence Day is no picnic.

"We raised 3,000 flags last July 4th," Howe says. "But that was nothing compared to the Bicentennial. The all-time record was Independence Day 1976. There was about a dozen extra flagpoles, and I'm not exactly sure how many people were working. But they managed to fly over 10,000 flags during the 24-hour period. It must have been a job and a half!"