It's a figurative chain of freedom, and possibly the most unusual 9/11 tribute yet -- 911 one-dollar bills folded and tucked to form rings, linked together.

Ben Barnes, 75, of New Hope is the lord of the rings who says he spent nearly five years folding hundreds of $1 bills 12 times each -- a chain reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the genesis of this 54-foot "In God We Trust 9/11" chain of rings was born 40 years before the Twin Towers collapsed.

In a bar.

Barnes says he spent years working in Golden Valley as a mixologist -- or bartender, if you're on the other side of the counter. A customer, with time on his hands and money literally at his fingertips, would sit at the bar, transforming $1 bills into rings.

Each ring was perfect -- firm enough to wear on your finger with the "1" always face up, shining like a stone.

Barnes knew a few tricks himself. If you're foolish enough to bite and hand him a dollar bill, he'll ask you what dairy product and famous movie are closely associated with George Washington.

Then he'll take your dollar, rip it into two, toss the pieces in the air and answer, "half-and-half and 'Gone With the Wind.'"

Paying the price

But the ring trick was a new one for Barnes, who just had to know the bar patron's secret.

This wasn't play money. This lesson would be costly.

"I gave the guy $20 to learn his trick," Barnes recalled. "That was 25 percent of my wages."

Barnes learned the dozen folds it took to make the ring, and how to tuck folds beneath others with the help of a car key. He also learned that not all dollar bills are of equal value. Brand new bills were too stiff, overly wrinkled bills too flimsy and torn bills impossible.

"The old $50 bills made a beautiful ring," said Cleone Barnes, 70, a woman with apparent expensive tastes and a strong tolerance for one man's obsessions. After 44 years of marriage -- and more rings than Saturn -- Cleone merely rolls her eyes and sighs.

"He's been doing this for a long time," she says, with the indifference of a woman who can't be bribed by a ring, no matter how many $1 bills it took to create.

"You have no idea how many $1 bills this chain took," she said. "He'd notice the slightest tear and say, 'No, can't use this.' Or they'd be so firm, his fingers would ache and he'd have to stop after a few hours."

Ben, who has also made a rocking chair and bench for his grandchildren's tiny stuffed animals out of clothespins, made a 25th wedding anniversary gift for friends, transforming 25 $1 bills into a necklace made out of rings.

And then came 9/11. He would make a chain of 911 $1 bills. The serial number of the first bill would end in 011. The serial number of the last bill would begin 911.

"I thought he was out of his mind when he started this," Cleone says.

"I did what I could when money was available," counters Ben.

His masterpiece now sits in a vault, to be viewed on special occasions, though he doesn't have any set plans for the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Ben still offers newlyweds two $1 bill rings and hopes to pass the secret of his craft to his seven grandchildren.

There's lots for them to learn from his days behind the bar. If they don't impress -- or lose -- friends by ripping $1 bills in half, he has another trick to get them through life.

Says Ben: "I can balance a spoon and fork on the end of a glass."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419