2020 — Part 5:
This summer I hear the drumming
—CSNY | Ohio | 1970
Hundreds of blood-red handprints cover the bright white Columbus limestone columns and steps of the Ohio Statehouse. Armed with spray solvent and scrub brushes, two crisply-attired state troopers assess the damage while a half dozen more stand guard behind them. Before tackling the handprints, they first work on erasing the words, hastily scrawled but as clear as this bright July morning.
Hands up. Don’t shoot.
As Dawn and I don our masks and ascend these Statehouse steps, it’s the first I’ve set foot in Ohio, despite growing up in the state next door. It’s September 1, 2020. My 48th birthday.
Pennsylvanians see Ohio the way New Yorkers see PA: we think of it as being like our state, minus all the cool stuff — if we think of it at all.
Everything I know about Ohio, I learned from songs. I can pronounce Cuyahoga thanks to the Pretenders. Springsteen taught me how in Youngstown, back in 1803, James and Danny Heaton found the ore that was lining Yellow Creek. They built a blast furnace there along the shore. And they made the cannonballs that helped the Union win the war. Geographically speaking, I know the state is round on the ends and high in the middle.
Dawn and I rose with the sun this morning at the dependably adequate KOA in Casey, Illinois. The rest of the campground’s dozen guests were bunking in massive RVs, so it felt safe to give myself the gift of a nice warm shower — my first in four days. The men’s room was clean and well-ventilated — if not one hundred percent spider-free. I spent an extra few minutes under the water, drawing in long, deep, steamy breaths. Happy birthday to me.
On June 18, we hitched up Trailer Swift, our 5’x8’ sleeper camper and drove to Litchfield, Minnesota, Dawn’s hometown.
Since the middle of March, we’d been isolating at our home in Fort Collins, Colorado — taking on ambitious home improvement projects, running our business, and trying to stay sane.
In Minnesota, we entered a tight family bubble working to keep my 91-year-old father-in-law alive and out of a nursing home. Dawn joined two of her sisters in rotating shifts of round-the-clock caregiving. Also in our bubble were my mother-in-law, two brothers-in-law and our nine- and eleven-year-old nieces — my favorite miniature humans on the planet. Until the grand-baby arrived, that is. We had plans to go to New York and Connecticut in May for his first birthday. But those plans got canceled when everything got canceled.
“I’ve got a crazy idea,” Dawn says, after two months in our Litchfield bubble. I buckle down and listen up. Twenty years in, and I still never know what will follow those words.
“Let’s take a road trip for your birthday. We’ll see the boy and bag some Liberty Bells along the way.”
The baby and his parents moved to Connecticut just before the pandemic, and the three have been isolating there since March. As Dawn works out the particulars, it seems like we might actually see our grandson again before he forgets our faces. We can’t get there soon enough. And we can’t get there any sooner — we all agree to a five-day mobile quarantine between Minnesota and Connecticut to help reduce the risk of bubble-to-bubble infection.
Planning to overnight at sparsely occupied campgrounds, we hit the road with a beer cooler, a food cooler, homemade face masks, hand sanitizer and a two-year supply of rubber gloves. Our trip will take us along a fairly straight path to the 1950 US Treasury Bells in Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Checking my own list of other Liberty Bells, we can see replicas in Neillsville, Wisconsin, Charleston, Illinois and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania without adding many miles.
We can add the Michigan bell and a replica in Green Bay, Wisconsin, if we take a northern return route, passing through Ontario. But US residents aren’t allowed in Canada right now. Turns out we didn’t need to build that wall — the rest of the world built one around us. Instead, Dawn suggests dipping down to see the West Virginia bell because when else would we get to West Virginia? With no more than six hours of driving per day, we’ll span 2,108 miles, logging eight bells in five days.
In keeping with the 2020 theme, things don’t go exactly as planned. Capitols across the country are on various states of lockdown due to COVID protocols, armed protests against said protocols, and the ongoing civil unrest sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Wisconsin Capitol is on full lockdown. No amount of sweet-talking will get us inside the building to see that bell.
As we settle in for our first night of camping, Trailer Swift’s brakes go out. It’s Friday, and we won’t find an open repair shop until Monday. The three-day delay means we’ll be driving past the Indiana War Memorial and Museum — home of the state’s Liberty Bell — on a day it’s not open.
To make up for lost time, we cut out West Virginia and Harrisburg. Ohio’s is the last of four bells we’ll see on this tour. All in all, not bad for a road trip during COVID times. We’re a day away from ten days with our grand-baby. Happy birthday to me.
Other than some boarded-up windows on the west side, the Ohio Statehouse shows no signs of the $158,000 in damages incurred during this summer’s unrest. We enter on 3rd Street, one of two open entrances due to staffing and security concerns. Two state troopers greet us with smiles that fall somewhere between professional obligation and a warm welcome.
The 3rd Street entrance leads to the first floor, which is functionally the basement. From this vantage, there are no sweeping marble staircases or neck-craning interior rotunda views. It’s not the grand entrance the architects intended.
We cross a map of all 88 counties set in stone and into the Museum Gallery where reporters have gathered for a press conference by Governor Mike DeWine. Shortly he’ll address gun violence, sex trafficking and the statewide 10 p.m. bar curfew.
Hanging from an oddly handsome, extra-wide ornamental wooden yoke mounted on an elegantly curved steel frame, the Ohio Liberty Bell’s presentation is unlike any other. And so is its history.
In early May 1950, Francis Coll, a long-term trucker and 14 year veteran with the Norwalk Truck Line Company, leaves his home state for the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York. There, he’ll complete two days of training and return with what will be his constant companion for the next 50 days — the Ohio Liberty Bell.
In Cincinnati on May 15, he accompanies a masked Miss Liberty — her true identity will be revealed when the drive kicks off to sell Ohio’s 38.8 million dollar share of the nation’s 650 million dollar Savings Bond quota.
In the city of Washington Court House on June 16, Mrs. Lucille Stoops — the great-granddaughter of Declaration of Independence signatory James Wilson— welcomes the bell. To up the entertainment value, she’s joined by a man dressed as cartoon character Humphrey Pennyworth — a lumbering lummox, who, despite being a talented pugilist, only wants to eat pie.
On the fifth of July, the state officially receives its bell. Calling the Treasury’s gift “a symbol of the freedom for which our boys are fighting,” Governor Frank Lausche echoes the sentiment of many of his counterparts, framing the Liberty Bell as a powerful tool in fighting Communism. “We are living in a critical period. Let it be the voice that will tell the dictator, ‘we want no part of you’”. The bell is displayed outside the Ohio State University Historical Society in Columbus.
But the Ohio Liberty Bell barely settles into its new home before returning to active duty in the war against Communism.
In September 1951, it joins the Cavalcade of Freedom, a 10,000-mile, 117-city statewide tour to promote the latest in American weaponry: radio. The bell is again mounted on the back of a flatbed truck, this time sharing the stage with a balloon launcher and radio transmitter. Secretly run by the CIA and funded by Congress, Radio Free Europe is raising support and 3.5 million dollars from the American public for its mission to penetrate the Iron Curtain and reach 35 million Europeans with pamphlet-dropping balloons and uncensored radio broadcasts.
After completing its second fundraising tour in as many years, the bell settles into a more permanent location at the Ohio Historical Society Museum. As the 1976 US Bicentennial approaches, Ohio seeks to capitalize on renewed national interest in the Liberty Bell replicas. Two days after Thanksgiving, 1975, with its frame and yoke removed, three men struggle with a rigged system of dollys to pull the one-ton bell up the Statehouse steps.
Once in the building, the bell is displayed in the rotunda throughout the year-long Bicentennial celebration. It remains in the Statehouse until 1990, when the building undergoes a massive 7-year, 120 million dollar restoration. The replica moves back to the Ohio Historical Society Museum, which has rebranded as the Ohio History Center and returns to its current Statehouse location in 2015.
We spend about five minutes in the building, including pit stops. If there’s a worldwide pandemic afoot and you need to find a clean and empty public restroom, you could not do better than a state capitol.
Mid-sized, as far as capitols go, the exterior grounds host the requisite monuments to white guys striking heroic poses. The most recent addition is the impressive 2014 Holocaust and Liberators Memorial that honors the 6 million Jewish and 5 million other murder victims and celebrates the survivors who made their home in the state along with the Ohio soldiers who took part in the liberation. A low granite wall bears the inscription, “If you save one life, it is as if you saved the world.”
Columbus is eerily quiet for a capital city at 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday. We cross State Street to shoot photos of the Statehouse. From the Peanut Shoppe with its 1936 neon Mr. Peanut sign, to the historic Ohio Theatre, to the 1980s Sheraton, every window is boarded up, and every board is beautifully adorned. Shortly following this summer’s unrest, #ArtUnitesColumbus employed local artists to paint murals on the plywood covering broken windows. The initiative has since spread to include over 100 works of art city-wide.
Columbus, Ohio is the Cleveland Indians of capital cities. An identity change is unavoidably underway. It’s broken but not beaten. It’s not yet in ruins and not yet rising. Rather, it’s standing in this moment in history. Resting. Catching its breath. Building resolve. Steeling itself for whatever comes next.
The Ohio Statehouse, Museum Gallery
1 Capitol Square
Columbus, OH 43215
Serial Number: 23
Can I ring it? No. The clapper has been removed.
Hours: Mon. – Fri. 8 a.m. – 5 p.m
Sat. & Sun. 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
The Ohio Liberty Bell replica is in the Museum Gallery, which is being used as a press room for the Governor’s press conferences, often are between 2 and 4 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. Due to staffing and security considerations, only the 3rd Street and South Light Court sliding doors are open to the public.