Millions of schoolchildren around the country are giving, at least technically, a wrong answer when they respond to the question, "What is the capital of the United States?" with the answer, "Washington, D.C."

The capital -- or, more accurately, the "permanent seat of government" -- of the United States is the District of Columbia. No Washington about it, at all. Washington is, as we recounted the other day, only a lost city and a post office address within the larger District.

Our citation, which only a lawyer can interpret -- Ch. 389, 61 Stat. 643 -- states:

"All that part of the United States included within the present limits of the District of Columbia shall be the permanent seat of government of the United States."

The next paragraph indirectly provides a puzzler: "All offices attached to the seat of government shall be exercised in the District of Columbia, and not elsewhere, except as otherwise expressly provided by law." (The president is permitted to move governmental activities "in case of the prevalance of a contagious or epidemic disease" in the District but not, as President James Madison did in 1814, in case of hostile military invasion.)

A brief but diligent search of the U.S. Code finds no "otherwise" provision permitting the Defense Department to operate in Virginia, at the Pentagon. Have we stumbled onto something, or can Pentagon lawyers provide an escape hatch? Mistaken Identity

A mother and a preschool child were riding Metro the other morning. The child looked across the car and spotted a picture he identified as that of George Washington, and said something about it being Washington's Birthday (marked, actually a day earlier).

"Why does he look so funny?" the child asked his mother.

"His hair is done different," the mother replied.

The picture was of William Shakespeare. Bridge Spectacle

Commuters on the Southwest Freeway in the height of the morning rush hour were startled yesterday to come upon a car, apparently a taxicab, engulfed in bright orange flames. The vehicle was bound for the bridge to Virginia when it caught fire, fortunately not exploding, so traffic squeezed past in adjacent lanes. But two of three lanes were blocked for some time, with a chain-reaction delay stretching far back onto I-295.

Bob Marbourg, WTOP radio's airborne traffic reporter, gave high marks to the D.C. fire and police departments for arriving quickly, dousing the flames and towing away the smoldering wreck. The D.C. fire marshal's office could not provide details of the fire's cause or the vehicle's ownership.