Road dogs
Road dogs

Road dogs

{reading time: 15 minutes}

At 51, I now know what it’s like to be a celebrity in public. You learn to notice when you’ve been made. You have about three seconds to put on a happy face and prepare to engage. They’ll approach, establish eye contact and ask one of three questions. Sometimes, they’ll want a photo.

The more public the space, the more likely the encounters. Airports are a guarantee. Except New York. New York is different. You’ll get no attention, and you’ll like it. If someone looks at you and if they notice, they’ll suppress any urge to converse and continue on their way. They’ll get home later and say, “Guess what I saw today?”

It will happen when you’re happy, when you’re sad and when you don’t have time for it. It will override any back-off, not today vibes you might want to put out. You’ll give the same answers and try not to sound rehearsed:

“She’s a little bashful, but you can try to say hello.”

“Nope, she’s fully grown. Nine pounds.”

Officially, her coloring is called ‘reverse black dapple with tan points.’”

This is the point of our story where we bring in a cute little character to spice things up. Meet Zuzu the wiener dog — the reason I now talk to strangers on the regular.

It’s the 8th of May, 1950 and Albert Cobo, the newly-elected mayor of Detroit, is smiling for a smattering of newspapermen. He’s locked in an unnaturally long handshake with veteran truck driver Fred Bolton.

The 1949 Michigan Driver of the Year, Bolton earned the title by logging 25 years and 1.5 million miles for the Interstate Freight Service without a crash. After a year of good-natured ribbing from his fellow Teamsters, Michigan’s best is boarding a train bound for New York. There, he’ll join equally acclaimed truckers from across the country for a 2-day training session at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

I didn’t think I’d have a dog in my adult life. I’m fairly allergic to most dogs, considerably allergic to all cats and deathly allergic to every sort of farm animal. Sneezing leads to wheezing. Wheezing leads to sucking on my asthma puffer like the lazily-written, sensitive weakling character in an ’80s movie.

My stepfather has always had dachshunds. When he and my mother married in 1999, Sadie joined the family. A few visits full of sneeze-free Sadie snuggling opened new possibilities.

Rocky joined our family a few years later. Billed as a mini-dachshund, we were surprised when he kept growing. When he stopped growing long, he continued growing around. That boy would have eaten until he exploded. Like a goldfish. Supplementing his meals with broccoli tricked his brain, filled his tummy, and helped him return to his fighting weight.

Rocky was our fierce and loyal companion as we built our business and sent each kid off to college. He and I grew old and gray together. Dawn didn’t get the memo. When he died in 2018, we didn’t consider trying to fill the dog-sized holes in our hearts. Instead, we dove headlong into our travel-on-a-whim, empty-nester era.

Fred Bolton reunites with Mayor Cobo a week later. This time joined by considerably more newspapermen and thousands of spectators. They are there not to celebrate the trucker but his cargo.

Dressed in their Sunday best, twelve-year-old Lena Canty, ten-year-old John Rodden and eight-year-old Stephen Rettke stand on Bolton’s truck bed in front of Detroit City Hall. All eyes are upon them as their thirty little fingers tightly grasp the rope slung over their left shoulders. In unison, the children lean forward with all their might.

Bonggggggg.

Who rescued who? With Zuzu, it’s a valid question. More precisely, the question is, who bought who from a breeder they met in a funeral home parking lot? We asked our then two-year-old grandson what our new puppy’s name should be. Without blinking, he responded, Excavator. Alrighty, then. The AKC process to register a dog’s name is like picking a website domain. If someone’s already thought of it, you’re out of luck. But that kept us from having to rescind the boy’s naming rights. So, on the day after Christmas 2021, Zuzu Binks, Excavator of Souls joined the family.

We drove to Iowa to pick her up and carried on to Minnesota through a raging snowstorm. She got early exposure to all kinds of people, places and pets. Zuzu would see ten states by her first birthday. Her travel case is her safe space, even at home. Strap her into the backseat, and she will snooze until we stop for gas. Flying with her is just as easy. For a dog who likes to bark at the wind, she’s a silent, stealthy travel companion.

The crowd roars. The children repeat their choreography. Seven times in total — one for each letter in the word Liberty. Then, an eighth toll. In the heat of the moment, did they forget how to spell? Count? Decide to add an exclamation point? It doesn’t matter. Michigan has met its Liberty Bell. The 50-day drive to sell $32,834,000 in U.S. Savings Bonds has begun.

Areal bombs explode. An Army Veteran in the crowd instinctively shudders and ducks his head. Momentarily embarrassed, then eternally grateful, he looks side to side and joins the applause. On cue, the bells in church steeples and fire stations across the city join the chorus.

Having served seven terms as the city’s Treasurer, the new mayor breaks from his trademark fiscally conservative party line, imploring Detroiters to place their faith and their savings in the hands of the Federal Government, “[It is] necessary for the time being to spend a great deal of money on our Army, Navy, our Air Force and on foreign aid programs. This is money invested in the cause.”

Michigan Supreme Court Justice George Bushnell lectures on the danger of consumerism, “Saving is self-discipline. Its regular practice builds up moral fibre, economic strength, factors in national morale. Self-indulgence, extended on a national plane, can eat away at the core of our national strength and our will to survive during the critical days ahead.”

Detroit built the machines that won the war. Surely, it can raise the money to preserve the peace.

Put me on a bus (without my lovely and approachable wife), and the seat next to me will be taken last. Every time. I’m not trying to repel people. I don’t have to try. I’m not exactly sure why this happens. I’m not overly creepy. I don’t take up much space. I don’t usually smell bad.

I’ve tried a few times to override this phenomenon. Twist my resting serious face into some expression of benign contentedness. Smize. Make eye contact. Gently nod as if to preemptively say, “Thanks for sitting next to me. Welcome. I’m not terrible.” All attempts to make myself more approachable have thus far had the opposite effect.

But Zuzu’s cuteness has completely overridden my projected standoffishness. All sorts of folks in all sorts of places approach us — from big burly bikers to grabby little toddlers.

She and I are the opposite of the guy at the mall with the snake around his neck, waiting to be noticed. We’re equally ambivalent about strangers. We have our people, we love our people, and we don’t particularly need new people. But I know it’s good to expose young dogs to lots of different situations. So we’re working to gracefully embrace our celebrity.

In Albion, National Guardsmen and two 110 MM guns flank the bell. Marian Zimmerman, president of the Albion Federation of Women’s Clubs, challenges the women in the crowd, “We know we can bank on America. Can America bank on us?”

Upon arrival in Port Huron, a police escort guides Bolton and the bell to the Mueller Brass Company’s plant. VP of Sales Fred L. Riggin Jr. heralds his industry’s contribution to the cause with a bit of patriotic schmaltz mixed in for balance, “The 49(*) full-scale copies of the historic shrine in Philadelphia have been donated by the copper industries of the nation. Copper is the voice of liberty during the Independence Savings Bond campaign, and because of their generosity, America will see a bond campaign of unprecedented appeal. It’s more than a bond drive; it is a revival of interest in historic America with an inspiring moral for today.”

Back in Detriot on the fifth of July, star of the soon-to-be-released Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson, tolls the Liberty Bell seven times and signs autographs for bond buyers at the Crowley-Milner & Co. department store.

By the drive’s end, Michigan has sold 64% of its bond quota, but officials expect that number to increase as last-minute sales are tallied. Fred Bolton and his Liberty Bell log more than 5,000 miles, visiting 120 cities. With zero crashes.

Zuzu joins us to visit Alabama’s bell when she’s four months old. It’s February, and her first time seeing green grass.

On this road trip, we’ll see our next five. Hunting Liberty Bells has, delightfully, taken us to places we’d never otherwise think about visiting. Or even think about. When you think about Michigan, you think about cars. You know that cars come from Tennessee and Korea and Bavaria, wherever that is. But spiritually, cars come from Michigan — Detroit. Flint. Pontiac. Cadillac. So it makes perfectly nonsensical sense that the country’s only carless town is right here in Michigan.

Of the more than 4 million miles of highways, byways, and backstreets that unite these states, an 8.2-mile stretch of M-185 on Michigan’s Mackinac Island stands alone in its banishment of the motorized vehicle. Like a midwestern Cape Cod, Mackinac’s appeal seems to be its exclusivity.

It’s a warm Sunday afternoon in late August 2023 as we roll into camp at Straights State Park. We’re a mile’s walk to the ferry that will transport us to this island before time. Shaded and hilly with narrow roads and tightly packed campsites, the place has a curious Juggalo vibe.

Governor. G. Mennen Williams officially accepts the bell and dedicates it to young Michiganders. It’s mounted in the center of the Capitol rotunda’s glass floor. Designed to let sunlight pass through to ground level, the floor consists of 976 glass bricks laid within a cast iron gridwork. Michigan’s Liberty Bell will serve as the Capitol’s centerpiece monument for the next 18 years. When the Ypsilanti Americal Legion asks to borrow the bell for their Fourth of July parade, the state deems the request too labor-intensive to facilitate, requiring 75 labor hours and a crane.

But by 1968, the nuisance outweighs the novelty. Legislators are being routinely rattled by enthusiastic tourists bonging the bell. The custodians of the Capitol can now justify the work to move Michigan’s Liberty Bell replica. It’s demoted to the ground floor and quietly silenced.

After a choppy 20-minute ferry ride, we deboat at Mackinac’s Saint Ignace dock. As we hit the street, it hits us.

Horseshit.

The mythic carless island of Michigan has, for over a century, staved off the automobile by preserving its predecessor. Horses and buggies and all the accompanying putridity as far as the eye can see.

Upon seeing nothing but horses where all the cars should be, Zuzu goes completely fucking bonkers. We haven’t done exposure work with horses because (checks foreshadowing) I’m deathly allergic to them. She knows something is deeply wrong on this isle and is determined to send each beast back to 1880. Having had plenty of exposure to barking dogs, the nearest equus turns her head in our direction like bitch, please.

A carriage bobbles on the cobblestone, carrying gleeful tourists who munch kettle corn as their equestrian Ubers expel excrement into dangling leather pouches. I don’t trust any creature that shits and walks at the same time. Zuzu agrees.

I look back over my shoulder to see our ferry motor off. The next boat arrives in ninety minutes. Time enough to find a quiet little restaurant with outdoor dining that doesn’t smell like a barn.

Dawn ducks into one of the island’s 42 fudge shops while Zuzu and I hug it out. I whisper quiet affirmations to myself and my dog. We are worthy of every breath we take. We are enough. My throat tightens as my mind wanders, not back to our quiet horseless house in Colorado, but to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

In 1972, the bell is moved a few yards to make way for an information desk.

In 1976, a bomb threat attributed to the Weather Underground forces 200-plus Capitol employees to evacuate. Legislators, bureaucrats and secretaries seek shelter from the January cold in nearby buildings as police search the statehouse from top to bottom for the alleged explosive. Considering the precedent set in Portland six years earlier, an officer peeks beneath the Liberty Bell, flashlight in hand. Nothing but cobwebs. The Capitol is cleared, and workers return.

The silence is broken in 1987 when Michigan’s replica joins bells across the nation ringing out for the second official observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

It’s 2003. Dawn and I and fourteen members of her family are in a medium-sized pre-air-BnB in Pigeon Forge. I’m still trying to find my place in this loud, undulating organism of Irish women and the men brave and crazy enough to stick around.

By the end of the first day, it’s clear the trip will be two parts discussing what to do, two parts waiting for the people not yet ready to do that thing and one part doing the thing. So when someone suggests Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, they have me at Dolly. I needn’t listen to the rest of the pitch.

The entire Putney party arrives fashionably early for the matinee performance and filters through a nondescript lobby sparsely adorned with Dolly memorabilia. We buy almost an entire row of seats in an indoor performance venue the size of a minor league hockey arena. We’re served our choice of ham or chicken. If you ask for a knife and fork, as I discretely do, you get the pat response, Oh, we don’t use silverware here in Dixie, darlin’.

It’s showtime.

What it lacks in historical accuracy, the Dixie Stampede more than makes up for in sheer entertainment value. The North and South battle it out once again in a raucous game of capture the flag. On horseback. Before I can begin to savor my hand-ham, the fog of war rises above the performers. Dozens of galloping Yank and Rebel beasts kick up microparticles of dirt and dung mixed with prop cannon smoke.

As the cloud hits our row, I instinctively reach for my puffer, which is always right here in my …

Fuck.

I don’t want to cause a scene or miss who will win the Civil War tonight, so I try to breathe without breathing it all in. I try to not die tonight. When we get back to the BnB, I slink off to our bedroom, hit my puffer and stay in bed for the next 12 hours.

In 1990, the bell falls victim to the second greatest threat to Capitol Liberty Bells, historic preservationists. Having avoided the greatest threat — the outdoors — the entirety of its retired life, Michigan’s 40-year-old bell is in good shape as it’s temporarily removed during a $58 million, 2-year Capitol restoration.

Predictably, as has happened in Kansas, Wyoming, West Virginia and maybe Kentucky — plans to restore the Capitol to its former grandeur do not include a 1950 Savings Bond drive relic.

In 1995, Senator Joel Gougeon, R-Bay City, uses the tools at his disposal to fight the good fight, inserting an amendment into the general budget that would require the bell’s return to the Capitol basement. The Republican offers a counterpoint to the preservationists’ originalist vision, “If you look at the flag, it didn’t have 50 stars when the Capitol was built. It (the bell) wasn’t here originally. We didn’t have computers on the floor of this chamber. We do now.” Gougeon’s argument falls on ignorant ears, and the replica spends the better part of the 1990s under a tarp and out of public view in a nearby building.

I flash forward to the present. To this island without cars. To my puffer, safe in the glove box back at Camp Juggalo, nine miles and 150 years away.

I imagine being loaded into the back of a horse-drawn ambulance carriage. America’s only horse-powered ambulance, proudly hand-painted on the side in olde-tyme script. Dawn and Zuzu are left in the dust to save weight as we gallop away. “He’s allergic to …” she shouts, but the horses are too fast. They really are fast. This does not feel safe on so many levels.

My two trusty first responder steeds — my heroes — watch from their hitching post outside the convincingly 19th-century hospital. They are committed to the bit here on Mackinac. The doctor opens a quaint leather doctor bag, like the old Fisher Price ones we had as kids, but bigger and real. He applies the leeches, and I give up and give in. As I gargle my last failed attempt of a breath, the horses look at each other like bitch, please.

By 2006, the Liberty Bell is in the care of the Michigan Historical Center, holding a place of dubious distinction outside the cafeteria.

The bell’s unofficial historian, Kerry Chartkoff, understands the icon’s popularity and the public relations challenges its removal caused, “For years, we were visited by people who had the hobby of being photographed by each state’s bell.”

As for efforts to return the replica to its former place of grandeur inside the Capitol, Chartkoff’s position differs from most of the bell hunters she’s helped over the years, “… our building is so small, and there is no place for it. It really has no place now that the building has been restored. Neither do we want to put it on the lawn of the Capitol, where it would be exposed to vandalism and the weather.”

Sometime between 2012 and 2018, the bell moves to Constitution Hall, one block from the Capitol.

I don’t die. Rather, we try to stay upwind, wander, look indecisively at a few menus and end up with just enough time for a fancy drink on a fancy porch. I order the highest-octane beer on tap. Zuzu gets a few last ferocious barks in at the passing horses. The other porch diners get some judgemental sneers in. We’re first in line for the last ferry off the island.

We land in Lansing the next afternoon. After the three-plus-hour drive from Mackinac, Dawn and Zuzu’s first priority is hitting the bathroom. As Dawn heads inside, the dog and I explore Constitution Hall’s well-manicured green space.

Built at the turn of this century on the site of the old Civic Center, Constitution Hall is a sleek and sleepy seven stories of responsible municipal architecture. It is not open to the public in the way a Capitol is. The building plays host to the Environmental Quality and Agriculture departments and the public they serve. Tourists don’t wander in to check it out.

I had arranged our visit with the polite and responsive building management team, so Dawn is quickly ushered through security, shown the bathroom and shown the bell. We swap dog duty, and I meet my 36th of the 57 Treasury bells. I take bell selfies and make small talk with my assigned staffer, who does not rush me despite clearly having real work to get back to.

The replica is one of the most well-preserved and intact we’ve seen. Oft cleaned but never restored; it bears a dark, rich patina with a slight color variation where the crack was once painted on. The only modification is the addition of two metal bars affixed to both sides of the frame and wrapped up and around the yoke to prevent ringing. It’s a more visually elegant solution than the original horizontal bars bolted across the bell’s belly, installed to prevent swaying while on the trucks and still in place in some locations.

Horseshit Island and Camp Juggalo aside, Dawn, Zuzu and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Michigan: picking wild berries and hunting agates at Fort Wilkins State Park, wading into the cold, clear waters of Lake Superior, Calumet’s rusty charm, and the stunning vistas of Pictured Rock National Lakeshore. We spent twice the time we planned to in the state and had ten times the fun.

Zuzu Binks, Excavator od Souls
Zuzu Binks, Excavator of Souls, AKA: Barky Barktokomous, Dogface Killah, Snoozu Binks, Zooz, Zoozers, Zupa-a-Dupes, ZuperStar

*Contemporaneous accounts variably list between 48 and 53 bells. 57 total were cast, 53 of them used during the drive: in the 48 states and the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia.

 

Michigan Liberty Bell replica

Location: Constitution Hall
525 W Allegan Street
Lansing, MI 48933

Serial Number: 19

Can I ring it? It’s in ringing condition, but indoors, so you probably shouldn’t.

Hours: Staff is onsite 7 to 5 Monday through Friday. Call 517-896-7614 to arrange a visit.

Michigan Liberty Bell replicaMichigan Liberty Bell replica

Dawn and Zuzu, Lake Superior rock hounds

Michigan Liberty Bell replica

Location: Constitution Hall
525 W Allegan Street
Lansing, MI 48933

Serial Number: 19

Can I ring it? It’s in ringing condition, but indoors, so you probably shouldn’t.

Hours: Public access to the building may be limited due to COVID-19 protocol. Staff is onsite 7 to 5 Monday through Friday. Call 517-896-7614 to arrange a visit.

Michigan Liberty Bell replica Michigan Liberty Bell replica

3 Comments

  1. Bruce

    I just visited Lansing in May 2024 and was able to see the Michigan replica bell. For those wishing to do so, note that Constitution Hall is not open to the public (only gov’t employees and those on official business) – do not attempt to just go there and hope to get in. I did not try the phone number Tom lists in the summary above, however here’s what I did and it worked very well:

    Go to the Visitor/Information desk at Heritage Hall at the Michigan State Capitol and ask if you can see the bell. They will call Capitol Facilities and arrange for a escort at Constitution Hall, then you can walk over (about a 5 minute walk) and present yourself at the security desk. The officer there will call Facilities and your escort will come and meet you in the lobby and then take you downstairs where the bell is.

    Everyone involved was very friendly and helpful, no problems of any sort. I was able to walk right up to the bell and take pictures, even the little serial number which is on the back side against the wall.

    1. Tom Campbell

      Bruce, Thanks for the comment and advice. I’m glad you were able to see the bell. In my experience, without exception, folks who work for the state (including members of Congress, who have much more important things to do than talk to me) have been exceedingly nice and accommodating. Happy bell hunting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.