only distinction is the bar and the fact thatnit is ahnost the terminus of the Mid ContinentnRailway, a line used and maintainednby a steam-railway museum innNorth Freedom. The train will stop innLaRue if someone flags it down, but normallynit runs into the deserted limestonenquarry, nearly a mile further down thenline. There, the little engine, either ancoal-fired or—this winter—an oil-fired locomohve,nsplits apart from the cars it isnhauling, scoots past on a parallel siding,nand recouples on the rear of the train andnbacks down the line all the way to thenswitchyard at North Freedom. Watchingnover it all is the station, a silent senhnel.nThat building—so necessary for a rail operation—wasnmoved from someplacenelse; it’s a prime example of the best then19th centur}’ had to offer. I’ve seen at leastna hundred others just like it.nWe three —refugees from a long weekendnof videotaping for a network show—nhad left the train as it finished one roundtripnand prepared to make another. It wasnthe dinner train —prime rib and all thenfixin’s —and it took two trips to affordnenough time to deliver the meal. Thenwaiters, the barman, the cooks, and thenconductor are all volunteers. They donatentheir time and service so the littlenrailway line can raise enough operatingncapital to keep going. During the summer,nthe train runs every weekend. Duringnthe winter, however, fliis is it: flie WinternTrain, one weekend only, three days ofnregular service and two evenings of thendinner train—all on five miles of track.nIn riieir tuxedos, the waiters make annelegant foil to the immaculately whiteshirtedncooks. They smile with the propernreserve, correctly serving from thenright, clearing from the left. Even aboardnthe rocking train, they don’t spill much ofnthe vintage wine —a drop here, a dropnthere, and then mostly on the whitentablecloths. The passenger-diners are includednin the drama. They know flie farengoes for a good cause, and they will putnup with some inconvenience—cars suddenlyntoo hot, no working bathrooms.nThey know the volunteers are workingnhard to make the dinner fun for everyone.nEven the black-suited conductor,nwho is responsible for passenger safet)’,nsmiles as he checks his train watch: Thenschedule is a matter of grave concern.nI’ve seen all these volunteers earliernand in other guises: the machinist, whonyesterday was milling down a piece ofnsteel for a wheel lock; the wood refinisher,nwlio was stripping old lead paint thatn38/CHRONICLESnhad been applied over cherry veneer.nThey are reincarnated in roles of servicento the railroad. Even the engineers andnbrakemen take turns with other jobs.nSome people call these volunteersn”foamers”; supposedly, they foam at thenmouth when they see trains. In NorthnFreedom, they are free to foam with impunity:nThey, after all, started the museum.nThey give up as many as 52 weekendsna year to work on outmoded,noutdated steam locomotives. Their enthusiasmnleads them to buy ancient caboosesnand line them up on a siding laidnjust for such time as their foaming interestnallows. The volunteers come here tonhve while practicing their lost arts of machining,nstripping, painting, roofing, refinishing,nupholstering, and whatevernelse it takes to make a train—derelict ornbarely running — steam like new, ornmaybe better than new.nSome people like a cabin in the woodsnor a cottage by the lake. These folks likena caboose by the Baraboo River, smack.ndab in the middle of North Freedom’sntrain yard. There are perhaps 20 abandonednsteam engines shunted off on sidingsnfor rebuilding, countiess trucks fromnunderneath railway cars stacked like a giant’sntoys, piles of rails and ties awaitingnplacement. To an untrained eye such asnmine, it looks like a scrap yard. To anfoamer, it’s a foretaste of heaven.nA steam whistie is both the morningnalarm and the nightty curfew. Most of thenvolunteers are so tired after a day’s labornfliat they will fall into easy slumbers. Butnthose few who keep up the steam in thenlocomotive boilers must stay awake; ttneynare the hostiers. (An ostler—with or withoutnthe “h” —was the man who wouldntake charge of travelers’ horses at an inn:nfrom horses to the iron horse.)nYou don’t just switch off a great steamnengine; you don’t just switch it on, either.nThe 2,000-horsepower boilers need to bencoddled, fed, watered, maintained. Givingnthem fire, giving them life, is a diceynproposition. They are —at the best ofntimes—barely controlled bombs, boilingnwater running through tubes in a fierynfurnace. One crack in a pipe, one breachnin the fire shield, and anyone within ancouple hundred yards might take onnshrapnel.nDuring the day, the engines churnndown flie track, flireatening at every momentnto derail, to come charging at anybodynwho dares to look too hard. But atnnight, they become living things, withntheir chuff and suss sounding off into thennndarkness. They are like dragons, restingnand dreaming, and somebody has to staynup all night to make sure that they survive.nIf the fire goes out, the train couldnfreeze, especially in zero-degree weather—likentonight.nWe’re four miles from the train,nparked at North Freedom, inside thenLaRue Bar with the Mellotones, sippingna few beers and waiting until the dinnerntrain is vacant—except for the hostler.nWhen she’s the only one left, we headnback for one last interview. What’s it like,nwe want to know, to sit out at night, undernthe stars, with only the great engine forncompany? And: Wliy? We know flie answer:nIt’s a fine madness, practiced by onlyna few, all the more desired because ofnits gnosticism.nThe madness has spilled over. Takenthe bar, for instance. The new ownersncame up for a train weekend, fell in lovenwith the desolation, and fled Chicago fornthe remote fastness of LaRue. They caternto the train crowd and serve the locals,nwho have —by all indications —takennthem to their collective bosom. Thenowners have restored the ancient edifice,nwith its front bar and ornate back bar.nThis, too, is an historical site. It wasnclosed, derelict, until the Chicagoansntook it over. And fliey took over wifli vim:nThey scrubbed and cleaned, sanded andnrevarnished, and reopened the bar andndance hall.nI see one of the proprietors—the husband—hisnhead dancing merrily to thenbeat of the band. And what a head —nhuge, with black curly hair and a fullnbeard covering everything except his eyes,nhis upper cheeks, and the tips of his ears.nHe has no neck (that I can discern), andnthe fat where his neck should be rolls overnhis mountainous shoulders when henturns his head from side to side to surveynhis happy patrons. I think he is smiling.nNow, thanks to his work, there is oncenagain a place to get a drink at LaRue. Andnwhat drink: Cernian, Irish, all the Netherlandsnbeers, and Wisconsin brew, too!nMy favorite: Oof Da, a local bock beernwith a kick like a mule. We’re sipping.nThe Mellotones are way ahead of us.nNot that we’re trying to keep up: We stillnhave work to do, and a fuzzy eye or anfuzzy question would dull the final product.nBut the Mellotones have work to do,ntoo—another couple of sets—and they’renpounding shots two at a time. I know anlot of musicians who claim they play betternwhen they’re drunk. They just thinknthey do —at least, most of them.n