Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Eyes on the Prize

There was a woman on TV the other day who said her full-time job was entering contests and winning fabulous prizes. She then proceeded to show off her cars, boat, stacks of money and big-screen TV, all of which she said she’d won during the past year.

I glared at the woman. You see, back in the 1970s, probably before this woman even was born, I also tried to make a career out of entering contests.

It all began when I purchased a book that supposedly divulged all of the secrets to entering contests and actually winning something. I read the book from cover to cover about 10 times and memorized nearly every word. And I must confess, I really did learn a lot from that book.

For example, contest entry blanks must be filled out exactly as listed in the rules. If the rules say to hand print your name and address and you type them, you’re disqualified. If they instruct you to send a postcard and you send a piece of paper in an envelope, you’re disqualified. And if the mailing address says Boston, MA and you write out the word Massachusetts on your entry, you’re disqualified. All of this nit-picking fussiness, according to the book, is to narrow down the number of eligible entries.

The book also said to send a few entries each week during the entire run of the contest. That way, you would have more of a chance of getting an entry into each separate mailbag instead of having them all wind up in just one.

As visions of winning mountains of money and a fleet of shiny new cars filled my head, I drove to the local pharmacy and purchased a stack of magazines, some envelopes (the business-sized ones, which the book said are pulled out of the stacks of entries more often because they are bigger), 3x5-inch index cards and a variety of ink pens in different colors. Then I headed to the post office to buy a roll of stamps.

I was ready.

I flipped through the magazines and found quite a few sweepstakes that offered exciting prizes such as cars, money, exotic trips and home-entertainment centers. I carefully cut out the rules for each contest and then numbered them according to their entry deadlines. Finally, I began to write out my entries.

The first time I received a registered letter from a place called the National Judging Institute in New York, I nearly needed CPR. “You are a winner in the Benson & Hedges 100’s Sweepstakes,” the letter stated. “Please fill out the enclosed affidavit and return it to us to claim your prize.”

My hands trembled as I filled out the form and then rushed to the post office to mail it. That night, when I told my husband that he’d probably soon be driving around town in a brand new 1975 Cadillac, he no longer thought my obsession with contests was (quote), “a big waste of time and money because nobody ever really wins those things.”

A few weeks later, I received another letter from the National Judging Institute informing me of my prize.

To my disbelief, I’d won 100 bags of marbles.

I felt the blood rush to my face as I stood there gripping the letter and wondering what kind of a dumb prize that was…and how on earth I was going to delicately break the news to my husband that he was going to have to keep driving around in his Gremlin.

That’s when I happened to read the rest of the letter. It said that I could opt for a $200 cash prize in place of the marbles. It wasn’t a car but heck, $200 was a lot of money back in 1975. I was tickled pink.

My contest obsession officially had begun.

Over the next few months, however, no matter how hard I tried, I never was able to win the grand prize in any of the contests I entered. Third prize was about the highest I ever reached.

Some of my prizes included: a backgammon set from Realemon, a travel book from L&M, a bath set from Jovan, $50 in groceries from Palmolive, a Disney GAF Viewmaster from Hostess, a rainforest umbrella from S.C. Johnson, $100 worth of jewelry from WFEA Radio and a set of hourglass-shaped Tab glasses from Coca-Cola.

I also won official Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors autographed tennis racquets, but seeing that I knew nothing about tennis and had no clue who Chris and Jimmy were, I sold the racquets for $5 at a yard sale. And then I won a year’s supply of hot-dogs…instead of the trip for six to Disney World.

I stopped entering contests when the postage rates went up, but a few years ago, I found the how-to-win-contests book in my desk drawer, reread it and decided to try my luck once again. This time, however, I selected only one contest (the one with the biggest grand prize) and concentrated on entering and winning that one. I figured that sending all of my entries to only one contest instead of spreading them out over several would give me better odds of winning. I spent over $35 in postage, but I knew it was going to be worth it in the end.

I actually did end up winning a prize for my efforts. It was (and I am totally serious here) an exciting package of Shamu the Killer Whale stationery.

I think I left it in the back seat of my husband’s Gremlin when it was towed to the junkyard.