Time to finish the story.
Finally got the E12 socket, and went to town on the rod bearings. #2 and #3 came off first because the engine was at TDC. First image shows the bearing caps and bearings. Some wear, nothing horrible. #2 bears had turned 90 degrees. No scoring on the crank. Replace the bearings, and turn the engine over for #1 and #4.
Well...#1 had been the source of my rod noise, and I think I found it. #4 bears had rotated 90 degrees and showed some scoring. #1 bearings...
well, I thought that it was missing at first. There was NO bearing under the rod cap. None. Nada. There WAS however TWO bearings under the rod surface, because the one had gone UNDER the other one. That's a new one for me! The bearings had been hammered paper thin and were split and torn/missing sections. However, the crank and rod cap didn't look that bad, so I tossed new bearings in and buttoned it up.
Timing cover back on, oil pan back on, valve cover back on, everything put together. Cranked for a few seconds with the fuel pump fuse removed to build oil pressure, then powered the pump a few times, and the engine fired right up. Load dependent ticking from the top of the engine still (only when driving, not just revving), but no rod noise. Drove around including highway speeds and RPMs up to 5K, no loss of power and no codes. No oil leaks, no overheating, just some top end noise.
Told the wife to turn the radio up and ignore the sounds, drive like the car is 100% fixed because it's silly to be afraid of it or baby it at this point. If the bearings blow out again, she should drag it home screaming instead of having it towed, because the engine is of no recoverable value right now, and a blown rod won't affect any of the rest of the car that is in excellent shape.
Maybe I'll get a video this week of the top end noise while driving. It sounds like what we've had for almost 2 years (but slightly louder), which is a load and speed dependent, plasticy clicking-tapping sound from the top end.