Dan R. Coats, the hard-working Republican congressman from Fort Wayne, emerged from the brown van and walked to the front door of the suburban high school. It was a Saturday morning and Coats was there for the fourth of five town meetings he was holding to take the pulse of Indiana's 4th Congressional District during the Columbus Day recess.

As Coats entered the school, he noticed a chair in the middle of the hallway with a handmade sign taped to it. His name was stenciled on the sign, with an arrow pointing toward the 800-seat lecture hall. His name was spelled wrong.

Coats and his aide went where the arrow pointed, the click of their heels echoing through the locker-lined corridor. Finally they reached the lecture hall, opened the door and gazed inside. To their left was a bank of theater seats. Empty. Directly in front of them were row after row of tables and seats. Empty.

It was five minutes before 9. The town meeting was supposed to begin at 9. Last January, Coats recalled, his town meetings had attracted 200, 400, 500 people. He walked to a big, old, graffiti-scratched desk at the front of the hall, sat down, and waited. Ten minutes passed. It was very lonely. After 15 minutes, a figure appeared in the doorway--another aide. After 20 minutes, another figure appeared. It was the janitor.

The janitor's keys jangled loudly in the empty room as he strolled up to the desk.

"Well," said the janitor.

"Well," said the congressman.

"Well," said the janitor.

"You got any questions you want to ask me?" said the congressman.

"Nope. Not really," said the janitor. "I'm pretty content."

The town meeting thus adjourned, Coats and his assistants went to breakfast.

Two days earlier, 70 miles to the south, Sparky (Old Money Bags) Walsh and two clerks were talking, eating and smoking their way through the lunch hour at a table in the back of the county treasurer's office when Philip R. Sharp, the energetic Democratic congressman from Muncie, came by on a handshaking tour of the courthouse.

"Hey, Phil," said County Treasurer Walsh, who got his nickname years ago, long before the recent incident in which he was picked up by Muncie police on suspicion of shoplifting some camera equipment. "Whaddaya think of this guy Watts? Geez, Watts and Butz, you put 'em in a paper bag and shake it and see what comes out, huh, Phil? And now we got Wallace, too. This guy Wallace is talkin' as crazy as Watts and Butz."

Sharp had spent enough time schmoozing with the courthouse gang over the years to catch the drift of Sparky's chatter. Watts, surely, was James G. Watt, the outgoing Interior secretary. And Butz had to be fellow Hoosier and former agriculture secretary Earl L. Butz, whose racist joke had bounced him from an earlier Cabinet. But who was Wallace? It couldn't be Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace: he hadn't been heard from lately. Sharp decided it must be the Wallace who the day before had stepped down from the chairmanship of the Indiana Public Service Commission.

"I see in the papers Wallace resigned from the PSC," the fifth-term congressman said earnestly to the old, white-haired treasurer with cotton balls stuffed in his ear and teeth that looked like a parched row of feed corn. "What did he say?"

Sparky jabbed a white plastic spoon into a styrofoam cup of egg salad and took a drag from his filter cigarette. "Nah, Phil, not that Wallace," he said, his tone implying that Sharp, the former political science professor who had represented the Muncie area in Congress since 1975, still had a few things to learn. "I mean that damn football coach over there at Ball State. You know what he said, Phil? He said the Indiana State game wasn't that important. Hah! They keep losin' to Indiana State, and he keeps sayin' it ain't important."

Sharp and Coats, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, were back home in Indiana.

It was, as always, a long, long trip from here to there, from the catered lunches of Capitol Hill to Sparky Walsh's egg salad, from the bustling marble corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building to the abandoned lecture hall of New Haven High School, from Independence Avenue to the Jefferson, Jackson and Washington streets of Muncie, Columbia City and Shelbyville, from the drop-dead serious committee deliberations about national energy, communications and health policies to the provincial backbiting and good humor of small-town politics and sports.

"It's hard to figure out exactly what the real relationship is between what happens in Washington, what we do and say on the committee, and what the people care about back home," Sharp said as he journeyed down Rte. 9 from his district office in Muncie to a town meeting in Shelbyville. "But every time I come back here I am struck again--and humbled--by how different the two worlds are."

When most of the 435 House members fled Washington for what is called the Columbus Day District Work Period, a reporter went home with Sharp and Coats to explore the relationship between those two very different worlds that all congressmen must straddle. The mission began for both of them as an effort to find out what the people of eastern Indiana were saying about the major consumer issues that the Energy and Commerce Committee is dealing with this fall, such as natural gas and telephone pricing.

Swiftly, and perhaps inevitably, it evolved into something far more chaotic, unpredictable and ego-deflating--almost metaphysical. The words and issues of the Hill usually did not obtain in the flat lands 700 miles to the west.

For Sharp, chairman of the fossil and synthetic fuels subcommittee where billion-dollar decisions loom and $150-an-hour lobbyists hover, the morning of Oct. 13 began at 7 o'clock at Miller Cafeteria on Main Street in Richmond, "The City of Roses," along the Ohio border.

Sharp was there to speak to the Gateway Kiwanis Club. Among the faithful at the breakfast gathering were the local Republican prosecutor, who was busy with a scandal in the license plate office run in patronage-rich Indiana by the county Republican Party, and Coach Etchison, the living legend who had just retired as football coach at Richmond High after sending nine of his boys to the pros.

Before Sharp was introduced it became clear to him that his presence was something of a political mistake.

The reason was the fellow Democrat sitting next to him, Frank Waltermann, who was running for mayor and had a good chance of breaking the Republican Party's decades-strong grip on city hall. Waltermann had been the scheduled speaker for that morning, but Sharp's staff, by making it known that the congressman would be in town, unwittingly had bumped him. In odd years in Indiana, few aspects of politics are more important than the municipal elections, certainly not the utterings of a congressman whose job isn't on the line for another 12 months.

Sharp apologized to Waltermann, gave the short version of his speech on the exceedingly complicated subject of natural gas pricing, and offered to answer any questions.

"I'd like to ask a general, philosophical question," said a gentleman in the back of the windowless room. "Does Congress work?"

Sharp began his answer by talking about the budget process and then realized that a philosophical question deserved a philosophical answer. "I still think that with all its problems Congress is very representative," he said. "The fact is that the disabilities of Congress reflect the disabilities of the American people."

From Richmond, Sharp drove 30 miles up Rte. 35 to Southside High School in Muncie, a working-class city of 76,000 where he had lived when he was an associate professor of government at Ball State University.

Sharp had sought and lost the Muncie area's congressional seat in

This is the ninth report in an occasional series about the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 1970 and 1972 before finally making it in the Democrats' 1974 post-Watergate sweep, displacing incumbent Republican David Dennis, who had been one of President Nixon's staunchest defenders on the House Judiciary Committee. He thus became one of only two Democrats to represent Muncie in Congress in modern times. The other was Randall (Front Porch) Harmon, who served from 1959 to 1961 and got his nickname by renting his front porch to the federal government for use as his district office.

In the auditorium of Southside, Sharp was introduced to the high school seniors by civics teacher Andy Phipps, who once ran for the state legislature on a ticket with Sharp and has made a name for himself in east-central Indiana with his radio gospel shows. Sharp spent about two minutes telling the students what he did in Congress on the Energy and Commerce Committee and then asked for questions. A very long minute passed before the first question was asked.

"Hey, yeah," a student near the front of the room said, "I want to know, what's it look like inside the White House? You know, what was it like when you first stepped into the White House?"

Sharp handled this deftly, saying the White House wasn't as large as you might think, nowhere near as large as palaces in Europe. But soon far more penetrating questions came nonstop: How did you vote on sending troops to Lebanon? Are the troops there provoking the hostilities? How would you compare it with Vietnam? What did Congress do about the South Korean jetliner? Could the Soviets have had a justifiable reason for shooting it down? What do you think about the use of drugs in school?

The congressman turned the last question around by asking students to raise their hands if they thought more than 50 percent of them had tried marijuana. Three-fourths of them raised their hands. Then he asked how many of them thought there was a serious drinking problem at the school. Even more of them raised their hands. Only 15 or so raised their hands when Sharp asked whether they thought marijuana should be legalized, and one of them soon was expelled from the auditorium by Phipps for making too much noise.

Sharp was in the middle of a sentence when the bell rang. The room was virtually empty before he could finish it.

From the high school Sharp traveled across town to the courthouse, where he encountered Walsh on the first floor and William Ora Shoyer on the second. Shoyer was running for a Muncie council seat on the Democratic ticket, and he had a problem he wanted to talk to Sharp about. It seems he had spent most of his campaign money on a handbill that told residents which lever to punch to vote for him. The problem was that the handbill told them to punch the wrong lever. Sharp told him not to worry, that the Democratic precinct chairmen could take care of it by getting the number right on the voting cards they hand out on Election Day.

That problem apparently resolved, Sharp drove over to the Senior Citizens Council Center at the corner of 5th and South Walnut streets, where he found about 30 elderly Muncie residents playing bingo in the basement. Two people told him the government should nationalize the oil companies. Three others urged him to make sure their telephone bills didn't go up. One asked him whether it was still raining outside. And another woman asked him why congressmen keep taking "vacations."

"You mean foreign travel?" said Sharp.

"Yeah, you know, vacations," she said. "As far as I get is from Hackley Street to here in the morning and back to Hackley Street at night."

After spending the next hour at his district office, next to the Muncie Psychiatric Clinic, Sharp drove south to Shelbyville in Shelby County, a predominantly Republican area that had been added to his district by the Republican legislature two years ago. His first stop was the Shelbyville Holiday Inn, where he unloaded his traveling gear and received a call from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who said he wanted to meet with Sharp as soon as he returned to Washington to plot strategy on natural gas legislation.

But now Sharp had other matters to attend to, such as the gathering of Shelbyville Democrats at the Victorian home of policeman Mike Shaw. The local newspaper reporter there said Sharp's presence would be a story only if he endorsed the Democratic mayoral candidate, Bill Cole. Sharp did just that, although he had met Cole only that night.

"A lot of you here know Bill a lot better than I do," Sharp began his endorsement speech. The newspaperman was relieved to get a story finally out of the mayor's race. "We tried to get the candidates to debate, but they refused to," he said. "They told us they didn't have anything to debate about."

Standing next to the would-be mayor was Charles Moore, an engineer who worked for General Motors in Indianapolis and was running for the council in his first political effort. Moore said he loved Shelbyville, especially the Varmints Club in town ("What do we do at the Varmints Club? Mostly drink beer and lie"), but he wasn't entirely sure he loved the town enough to devote his life to it.

"You know, I was over at the Varmints Club the other night and this old fella who had been on the council way back said people call you up in the middle of the night with their problems," Moore said to fellow council candidate Duane Coy. "Is that the way it is, Duane? In the middle of the night?"

"Yup," Coy said. "In the middle of the night they call you. Mostly 'bout dogs."

At 10:30 the next morning on the second floor of the old post office building in downtown Fort Wayne, Rep. Coats met the press to talk about natural gas. For many weeks Coats had been taking it from both sides on the issue. The big oil companies, under the ruse of a grass-roots campaign, had flooded his office with thousands of postcards urging him to vote for decontrol. At the same time, the Citizens Action Council, a local offshoot of the Citizen-Labor Energy Coalition, had been going door-to-door in his district collecting money to lobby Congress to roll back and freeze natural gas prices.

Coats is against total decontrol, because 70 percent of the natural gas supplied to his district is classified as cheap "old gas." If it were decontrolled, it would cost his constituents millions of dollars. As a relatively conservative free-marketeer, he also is against a rollback and freeze of prices. "Both sides have got the facts wrong," Coats said, in a statement that made local television that night but not the next day's newspapers.

After the news conference, Coats went to a nearby worker rehabilitation center in danger of losing some federal funds, and then to a senior citizens nutrition center in the basement of a Baptist church. There he ate a macaroni and hamburger dish, helped the 10 elderly luncheon regulars sing happy birthday to a woman named Opal, and listened to the stories of a delightful old man who said he corresponded with Herbert C. Hoover.

"I wrote you a letter once," one person said.

"Well, thank you for writing," Coats said. "What did you write about?"

"I can't remember now," came the reply.

From the church, Coats returned to his office and met with a lobbyist for United Telephone of Indiana, who urged him to oppose Energy and Commerce legislation eliminating long-distance access fees for local telephone users, and then with his senior citizens advisory council. That group talked for a while about telephones and natural gas, but soon the conversation drifted to nutrition and the carcinogenic qualities of various foods. Ben Decker, a former microbiologist at Purdue University who serves on the Republican congressman's council even though he is a liberal Democrat, told Coats to stop eating pepper and toast but to keep eating potatoes and carrots.

"What about rutabaga?" asked Coats.

That night, Coats traveled 25 miles to Columbia City for the third of his five town meetings. Twenty people were waiting for him in the basement of the Methodist church on Washington Street, including two rambunctious toddlers who screeched fire truck and airplane noises most of the night and knocked down the blackboard behind Coats as he was speaking. They caused little trouble compared with two old codgers in the audience who kept complaining about taxes, progress and communists.

"Ya know, 'bout 80 percent of the country is run by communists right now," said G.M. Hauck. "The only way to stop 'em is to hang 'em two-by-two from the telephone poles. Hell, right now old Castro could come right up through the central USA and no one could stop him. I betcha all the tea in China he could."

Compared with the kids and G.M. Hauck, the audience at Coats' next town meeting the following morning in New Haven was a relief. That's where there was no audience, except for the janitor.