The stars of the dance floor, a bantam couple, whirl to the “EE-II-EE-II-OO Polka,” a tune that would be obscure to almost anybody but the Mellotones. Their feet, tiny to start with, push each between the other’s with the precision of a sewing-machine needle working a button foot. Around and around they twirl, not with the elephantine steps of others on the floor, but with an effortless grace refined through long practice.

They might be 60, but barely. His tight jeans reveal legs no bigger than the driveshaft from a ’67 Buick Electra (less than four inches in diameter). His scruffy beard is mostly white, but the red cap pulled tight over his forehead reveals neither baldness nor a full head of hair. He does have a little potbelly pushing up over his belt, but his is hardly the only one in this crowd: All the good male dancers over 30 have a little bulge. It doesn’t slow them much.

His dance partner is swathed in dark leggings, maybe olive, maybe charcoal — it’s impossible to tell in the uncertain light spilling off the bandstand and over the dance floor. She sports a ruffled blouse and a hairstyle that was long out of fashion before it was pinned up. Her face is commonplace and unremarkable, at least to us. She is happy, content to be dancing. His face is a mask, looking like the early stages of Parkinson’s, but more likely trained not to reveal the joy that his feet cannot conceal. Men in LaRue don’t show by their expressions just how much they love to dance—well, not men who are middle-aged or above; the younger ones smile wildly.

I can tell that something comes alive in them when they’re dancing. My two friends and I have come to watch—taking a break from our work—and to share in the good time of a Saturday-night dance. I look around at all the dancers on the floor and the other watchers sitting at long tables. We’ve slipped under the radar; we’re outsiders, but we haven’t attracted too much attention. We could change all that by bringing in the big video camera that’s in the van and setting up some lights. If Jay were to don his Sony earphones while aiming the microphone pole at somebody, it wouldn’t take more than five seconds for the party to go away.

We like things here just the way they are; we wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t even want the men to smile, because then they would become the Lawrence Welk Dancers.

With “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits,” the Mellotones conclude “EE-II-EE-II-OO,” then launch into “Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie”—another polka—to round out the set. “Apple, peaches, pumpkin pie / who’s not ready holler I / let’s go play hide and seek.” They change the lyrics for the next stanza: “I’ve looked here, I’ve looked there / I’ve looked in her underwear / let’s go play hide and seek.”

This polka drives the less able from the dance floor, but the bantams still hold honors, even against a stylish couple who are younger, much better dressed, and have moves that flow over with excess energy. The man is determined to kick down his heels as hard as he can. The thunder against the oak floor reverberates through the dance hall. It’s a testosterone challenge.

The dance hall itself—a large, open room added to a crowded bar—is filled with beery, cheery voices; the dance is an event on the social calendar of this tiny hamlet. The walls are festooned with big, paper Valentine’s Day hearts. Twisted crepe streamers—red and white—radiate from the slowly twisting mirror ball that hangs above the center of the room. There’s no light aimed at it to throw diamonds on the floor and the four walls, but it turns nevertheless. The dance hall has been resurrected from disuse; the plain walls have been painted off-white, but the curtains that cover the high windows are dotted swiss. The suspended ceiling gives way over the bandstand to egg-carton separators stapled into place: a homegrown acoustical remedy for overloud bands. It might work, but I doubt if it would pass fire code.

LaRue consists of three remaining buildings in a sea of farmland, barren, dotted during this long winter with brown stubble and patches of snow. The dance at the LaRue Bar brings out local farmers and residents of the next small town, North Freedom, some four miles distant. LaRue, Wisconsin, is no longer even a spot on the map; there is no post office. Its only distinction is the bar and the fact that it is almost the terminus of the Mid Continent Railway, a line used and maintained by a steam-railway museum in North Freedom. The train will stop in LaRue if someone flags it down, but normally it runs into the deserted limestone quarry, nearly a mile further down the line. There, the little engine, either a coal-fired or—this winter—an oil-fired locomotive, splits apart from the cars it is hauling, scoots past on a parallel siding, and recouples on the rear of the train and backs down the line all the way to the switchyard at North Freedom. Watching over it all is the station, a silent sentinel. That building—so necessary for a rail operation—was moved from someplace else; it’s a prime example of the best the 19th century had to offer. I’ve seen at least a hundred others just like it.

We three—refugees from a long weekend of videotaping for a network show— had left the train as it finished one roundtrip and prepared to make another. It was the dinner train —prime rib and all the fixin’s—and it took two trips to afford enough time to deliver the meal. The waiters, the barman, the cooks, and the conductor are all volunteers. They donate their time and service so the little railway line can raise enough operating capital to keep going. During the summer, the train runs every weekend. During the winter, however, this is it: the Winter Train, one weekend only, three days of regular service and two evenings of the dinner train—all on five miles of track.

In their tuxedos, the waiters make an elegant foil to the immaculately whiteshirted cooks. They smile with the proper reserve, correctly serving from the right, clearing from the left. Even aboard the rocking train, they don’t spill much of the vintage wine—a drop here, a drop there, and then mostly on the white tablecloths. The passenger-diners are included in the drama. They know the fare goes for a good cause, and they will put up with some inconvenience—cars suddenly too hot, no working bathrooms. They know the volunteers are working hard to make the dinner fun for everyone. Even the black-suited conductor, who is responsible for passenger safety, smiles as he checks his train watch: The schedule is a matter of grave concern.

I’ve seen all these volunteers earlier and in other guises: the machinist, who yesterday was milling down a piece of steel for a wheel lock; the wood refinisher, who was stripping old lead paint that had been applied over cherry veneer. They are reincarnated in roles of service to the railroad. Even the engineers and brakemen take turns with other jobs.

Some people call these volunteers “foamers”; supposedly, they foam at the mouth when they see trains. In North Freedom, they are free to foam with impunity: They, after all, started the museum. They give up as many as 52 weekends a year to work on outmoded, outdated steam locomotives. Their enthusiasm leads them to buy ancient cabooses and line them up on a siding laid just for such time as their foaming interest allows. The volunteers come here to live while practicing their lost arts of machining, stripping, painting, roofing, refinishing, upholstering, and whatever else it takes to make a train—derelict or barely running—steam like new, or maybe better than new. Some people like a cabin in the woods or a cottage by the lake. These folks like a caboose by the Baraboo River, smack dab in the middle of North Freedom’s train yard. There are perhaps 20 abandoned steam engines shunted off on sidings for rebuilding, countless trucks from underneath railway cars stacked like a giant’s toys, piles of rails and ties awaiting placement. To an untrained eye such as mine, it looks like a scrap yard. To a foamer, it’s a foretaste of heaven.

A steam whistle is both the morning alarm and the nightly curfew. Most of the volunteers are so tired after a day’s labor that they will fall into easy slumbers. But those few who keep up the steam in the locomotive boilers must stay awake; they are the hostlers. (An ostler—with or without the “h”—was the man who would take charge of travelers’ horses at an inn: from horses to the iron horse.)

You don’t just switch off a great steam engine; you don’t just switch it on, either. The 2,000-horsepower boilers need to be coddled, fed, watered, maintained. Giving them fire, giving them life, is a dicey proposition. They are—at the best of times—barely controlled bombs, boiling water running through tubes in a fiery furnace. One crack in a pipe, one breach in the fire shield, and anyone within a couple hundred yards might take on shrapnel.

During the day, the engines churn down the track, threatening at every moment to derail, to come charging at anybody who dares to look too hard. But at night, they become living things, with their chuff and suss sounding off into the darkness. They are like dragons, resting and dreaming, and somebody has to stay up all night to make sure that they survive. If the fire goes out, the train could freeze, especially in zero-degree weather—like tonight.

We’re four miles from the train, parked at North Freedom, inside the LaRue Bar with the Mellotones, sipping a few beers and waiting until the dinner train is vacant—except for the hostler. When she’s the only one left, we head back for one last interview. What’s it like, we want to know, to sit out at night, under the stars, with only the great engine for company? And: Why? We know the answer: It’s a fine madness, practiced by only a few, all the more desired because of its gnosticism.

The madness has spilled over. Take the bar, for instance. The new owners came up for a train weekend, fell in love with the desolation, and fled Chicago for the remote fastness of LaRue. They cater to the train crowd and serve the locals, who have—by all indications—taken them to their collective bosom. The owners have restored the ancient edifice, with its front bar and ornate back bar. This, too, is an historical site. It was closed, derelict, until the Chicagoans took it over. And they took over with vim: They scrubbed and cleaned, sanded and revarnished, and reopened the bar and dance hall.

I see one of the proprietors—the husband—his head dancing merrily to the beat of the band. And what a head—huge, with black curly hair and a full beard covering everything except his eyes, his upper cheeks, and the tips of his ears. He has no neck (that I can discern), and the fat where his neck should be rolls over his mountainous shoulders when he turns his head from side to side to survey his happy patrons. I think he is smiling. Now, thanks to his work, there is once again a place to get a drink at LaRue. And what drink: German, Irish, all the Netherlands beers, and Wisconsin brew, too! My favorite: Oof Da, a local bock beer with a kick like a mule. We’re sipping.

The Mellotones are way ahead of us. Not that we’re trying to keep up: We still have work to do, and a fuzzy eye or a fuzzy question would dull the final product. But the Mellotones have work to do, too—another couple of sets—and they’re pounding shots two at a time. I know a lot of musicians who claim they play better when they’re drunk. They just think they do—at least, most of them.

But the Mellotones are impervious, and the dancers are not critical of their stage habits. Nor is the crowd concerned when they modify a rendition of “In the Mood.” The Cordovox player has slipped over to pick up a tenor sax. He’s playing about a quarter-tone sharp, and it sets my back teeth dancing in sync with those on the floor. The valve-trombone man has slipped behind the Cordovox and reveals an aptitude for this instrument as well. The drummer, inured to the switch-hitting, plays steadily. He looks bored, and each stroke on the ride cymbal is the same — every time, every song. The dancers don’t mind; live music is a treat anytime.

With “Sentimental Journey,” a young woman—large, obese—takes to the floor with her husband. If she were in the ubiquitous tights or blue jeans, she would be grotesque. She’s not. In a dress that rides above her knees, she displays calves as big as hams and the promise of gargantuan thighs. But she looks appealing. Both tall and thick, she is graceful and artistically poised on spiked heels. A few quick calculations: Say she weighs 300 pounds and that each heel is one-quarter square inch. If she lands on one heel with all her weight, that would equal 1,200 pounds per square inch. That’s just weight; it doesn’t even take into account the force that goes with it. Foot-pounds of energy, they call it. The floor shakes just a little; certainly it’s not soft or wavy.

She may know physics. She’s smiling with a secretive smile; she certainly knows something we can’t guess, but can only envy. I am happy for her, perhaps a bit jealous of her bliss as she is swept away in the arms of her lover.

I buy the second round, and we sit and watch. We watch hard, because we know we are really seeing something.

A young man enters the room, his face red from the cold. He sheds his coat and finds his young lady. Her jeans fit well. Together, they dance through the crowd. I can’t recall when I’ve seen better young dancers. They are smiling, assured. I know their dancing will protect them from harm, as it has protected all the others who are on the floor. They’re too young to be married, but not too young to think about it. In a few years, diey may be teaching their babies a polka or a shottish or a jitterbug. They’re not swing dancing in the style of this latter-day revival; they’re dancing the way their parents do, which is the way their parents did.

We learn lessons in humility this way. I can’t dance, and neither can the other two. Nor would we ask anyone to dance with us here; our wives are at home, some 500 miles away. We are not flirts or rounders. But we watch, and somehow we fit in (or think we do). Nobody asks where we’re from. This crowd is used to steam-train volunteers, and they probably assume we’re of that ilk. Maybe we smell of trains, and that protects us. We don’t see any others from the railroad, but we know they sometimes come here.

The second beer is gone. We must be, too: The hostler awaits. The band breaks as we leave. We wave to the massive owner, and he waves back as we exit through the front door.

We pull up beside the steaming locomotive, and I hotfoot it around the far side of a nearby building to make some steam of my own.

I return to find the other two ready to begin the interview. Dennis has mounted a little light on the camera; he’s going to rely on some of the reflected glow from the open boiler. Jay adjusts his earphones and positions the mike. I climb up the side ladder to the engine, and we begin this last interview, finally back in our own element. The hostler tells us the secret thoughts of this particular locomotive. We listen to her and to the engine, and the night moves toward day.

In the hiss of the engine and the silent pass of stars, we strike the equipment and return to our hotel for a few hours’ sleep.

We’re up in time for a 9:00 A.M. breakfast. All the tapes from the shoot are nestled safely in the van, and we’re on our way home. A five-day road trip, a project depicting this fine obsession, produced by a compulsion of our own.

My great-grandfather was a railroad man, the first person ever to collect a pension from the Pere Marquette Railroad. There were others in my family, too: great uncles, oddly assorted cousins.

Dennis, the videographer and real producer of this project, has a more recent history with trains. He even helped operate the very locomotive we’ve taped this trip: the little oil-fired Saginaw Lumber Co. Engine No. 2. After its lumber years, No. 2 ran the rails north of Cadillac as a hobby train. Dennis and his father were volunteers on the crew up there. Before our trip, Dennis described (in horrible detail) the tendency of the little engine to blow fire out of the fire box and into the cab when the oil regulation was less than perfect. We saw it happen around our ankles but escaped unsinged.

Dennis’s grandfather was a section IJOSS up north, keeping up his mile of track. That was his life’s work. Dennis goes so far in his foaming that his office — really his editing studio—is a 1927 Grand Trunk Western caboose. It is a cramped—but fun—place to work. That’s where we’re heading now, back to Michigan: Dennis to his house on the hill below the studio; Jay, to his country house; I, to my home along the Grand River.

We’re tired but happy as we make desultory chat about the trip. We always come back to the bar and the dancers, and I vow—silently—that I’m going to take lessons with my wife, lessons that will let us move in time, gracefully, to the beat of a band like the Mellotones.

I want to dance at LaRue.