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NEWS

All's fair in love and bumper cars

Joe Crawford

At first, John Harris talks about his job like a paid vacation.

He travels the country, pays no lodging and meets new people every day.

But ask the 47-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran if he would man the set of 24 bumper cars at the Heart of Illinois Fair without pay, and his tune changes.

"Ain't nobody breaking this stuff down for free," Harris said Sunday, laughing and puffing on a cigarette.

Harris said setting up and tearing down the heavy steel rides at the traveling carnival, The Mighty Bluegrass Shows, is easily the most demanding part of the job.

"As we break down, every nut and every bolt is checked," he said.

But that's how he and his wife, Lorie Harris, got involved in the first place.

The couple was at a carnival in Sarasota, Fla., in May 2007 when they were asked to help take down the equipment. They didn't mind the hard work, and the couple was looking for a reason to travel.

John Harris has lived all over, from California to Virginia to Washington. In his 27 years with the Air Force, he got used to traveling.

But his wife had barely left her hometown near Seattle.

"I'm having the time of my life," Lorie Harris said, one hand on the red button that keeps the Speedway Bluegrass ride running. "I'm seeing things I've never seen, like fireflies."

The Harrises' yearlong stint with the carnival is a sort of a trial run for them to see if they want to do it again next year.

They started with The Mighty Bluegrass Shows in April, moving into a semitrailer that will be home until the end of the carnival season in November.

John Harris said he retired from the Air Force in 2005, and he had recently left a job with a cruise ship company. His wife of two years had quit her waitress position.

They were ready for an adventure, and they got one.

The new sights and the colorful characters that routinely appear at carnivals keep life interesting, John Harris said.

Just dealing with the parents of the children in line at the bumper cars keeps him on his toes.

He said he frequently has to debate with fairgoers angry their children are too short for the ride. Never mind that the height requirement protects them from bloody lips and bruised faces caused by the safety restraint.

"Most of the parents don't care - they just want the kid to ride," he said.

On the whole though, John Harris said his first few months at his new job have been pleasant, and he talks at length about how much he enjoys seeing the country with his wife.

"I get to be with her as she sees it for the first time," he said.

Lorie Harris said she is also happy with the change in lifestyle after spending much of her life on a farm in rural Washington.

"The carnival life is night and day from what I've lived before," she said.

Joe Crawford can be reached at (309) 686-3251 or jcrawford@pjstar.com.