It was a marriage made in bowling heaven. They met at a stock car race. They bought a house trailer. They hit the pro tour with a bankroll supplied by her mother, a vice president of a water and sewer construction company.

But there was one thing Melissa Traber had to find out from her husband, Dave, before joining him on the odyssey that is the Professional Bowlers Association Tour.

"You mean, you can do this for a living?" she asked. "You put this on your tax form under occupation? Pro bowler?"

You bet.

Pro bowling is 34 weeks, 350 dreamers and "making the show," a working-class drama mixed in with spares, strikes and splits.

The tour is in Woodlawn for the $135,000 Fair Lanes Open, which winds up with tomorrow's nationally televised final on ABC.

Looking for glamour? Check out the green grass and polyester world of pro golf, where winners claim checks that add up to millions.

Real men bowl for a living, and some of their wives come along for the ride, entering a high-pressure world where the prize money is small, the stakes are high and the dream is as real as cashing a check for $870 for finishing 53rd. (Women have a pro tour, too, and it's even harder to make a living on that one.)

"It's not easy, and it's something I never thought I'd do," said David Traber, 30, of Woodstock, Ill., who earned $53,242 in prize money last year. "I don't say I'm ever going to get rich doing this. You've got your good years and your bad years. I could make $200,000, or I could make nothing. It's just an up-and-down sport, and you have to grind and grind and grind."

The grind lasts nearly 10 months and runs cross-country, from Torrance, Calif., to Peoria, Ill., to Erie, Pa., and back again.

They're Gypsies with bowling balls, rumbling into town in Fords, Chevys and motor homes, competing six hours a day, five days a week, living off fast food and aiming for a finish in the top third to pick up meager paychecks. Tomorrow's champion at Woodlawn will get $24,000, about an eighth of what the winner of this weekend's pro golf stop will make.

A few, maybe 15, actually make a good living, earning more than $100,000 in prize money, getting to the Saturday television show, pulling down winner's checks.

Another 40 bowlers will finish the year with more assets than debts.

The rest are left scrambling, trying to pick over what remains of $9 million in prize money.

"This tour is amazing to me," Melissa Traber said. "These guys love bowling so much, they're willing to put themselves on a limb."

Don't call them bowlers. Call them athletes.

"We're not a bunch of Ralph Kramdens," Walter Ray Williams Jr. said.

Most of today's bowlers are actually as physically fit as baseball players. They even wear clothes made of natural fibers.

But it's note a smoke-free environment inside most of the nation's bowling centers. After a walk through Fair Lanes, you'd swear you just had spent time on the bottom of one of the PBA's $3 ashtrays.

"Most of the guys don't smoke," Williams said. "They do drink beer. But not while they're bowling."

Make no mistake: This is a serious business.

In this sport, the athletes pay $200 to enter each event, and only those who finish in the top third actually get paid. At $1,000 a week in expenses, life on the tour can get expensive and grow depressing.

Rides are shared. Hotel rooms, too.

"I wouldn't wish this on anybody," Philip Ringener said as he eased into his La-Z-Boy recliner inside his 7-year-old, second-hand, 40-foot trailer home outside Fair Lanes Woodlawn.

His wife, Jill, was making dinner. His 9-month-old son, Jared, was tossing and turning in a crib. And his 4-year-old cocker spaniel, Rasberry, was digging at the pile carpet.

Ringener, 34, born and raised in Big Spring, Texas, was draining a beer. After blowing a tournament title three weeks ago by rolling a gutter ball, Ringener has missed the cut for the second straight week.

No play, no pay.

"Only a few guys can make a living at this," he said. "There is so much talent, but not enough money."

The scramble for cash is never-ending.

Meet Michael Azcarate, 25, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. His only possession is a 2-year-old Hyundai Excel. He's a tour "rabbit," forced to qualify for events from week to week until he earns enough money and status to gain an exemption.

"I'm willing to do this because I love it," he said. "I know it's a gamble, but I think I can make it."

Last year, he ran out of cash after 10 events and left the tour. But he's back again, rolling his best, using a $12,000 stake provided by sponsors. But before he cashes a dime, he has to pay off his sponsors.

It's a vicious financial cycle, but Azcarate, who has $4,652 in prize money this year, said it strengthens his resolve to make it on the tour.

"If I can keep my head and remember where I came from, I can survive," he said.

Bill Oakes, 36, of Lawton, Okla., is one of bowling's survivors. He's living a blue-collar fantasy, coming out on the tour five years xTC ago after getting laid off from his plumbing supply job.

He earned $39,065 last year, and, by cutting costs, he was able to scratch out a living. But he misses his wife and two young children at home, and he figures that, in another year, he'll return to a 9-to-5 life.

"I've got this blistering desire to win," he said. "In this game, you've got to be strong upstairs, because it's dead tough to handle. But I'd sure love to win just once before going home. My friends at home think I've been successful. But I know better. This is tough."

Even at the top, the bowling business is difficult. Williams, who won last week's event in Erie, Pa., and claimed a weekly "King of the Hill" prize, travels first-class bowling-style with his fiancee, Paige Pennington, riding around in a $75,000, 40-foot trailer home complete with kitchen, bath, double bed, color television, Nintendo and computer.

A five-time world champion in horseshoes -- he once pitched at the White House with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- Williams is nearing the million-dollar mark in career prize money.

But he's not rich.

"I don't know where all the money has gone," Williams said. "This is a tough way to make a living. But I can tell you this: There's no money in horseshoes."

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