An old city editor confiscated a bottle of whiskey once that had been given to me by the county sheriff. I asked him why I couldn't keep it, and he said, "Kid, if I let you accept this gift, someday that damned sheriff is going to want something in return, and he's going to figure you owe him a favor because of the bottle of whiskey. You might as well learn right now that there are no free bottles of whiskey in this world."
He was a very wise old city editor. Wise enough, for instance, to have kept the bottle of whiskey for himself.
As a result of his greedy example, I have never rested in my own efforts to pursue the American Dream, which, of course, is acquiring something for nothing. I voted for the California lottery and fill out every contest form that comes along. But now my greed has gone beyond whiskey. I thirst for a Lear jet or an oil field in Saudi Arabia. Even a week in Puerto Vallarta would do.
It was the Mexican vacation I had in mind when I entered a contest sponsored by Holiday Clubs International, a subsidiary of Holiday Inns. I figured it was providential. The only time I have ever been contest-lucky in my life was on assignment in Central California when I dropped a business card in a fishbowl container at the hotel where I was staying.
I was informed by mail some days later that I had won a free weekend at the Holiday Inn in Fresno, but it sounded so much like a joke ("second prize is two free weekends at the Holiday Inn in Fresno") that I never mentioned it to anyone and didn't respond to the news of my good fortune.
More recently, I filled out a Holiday Clubs contest form at a hamburger stand in Mission Hills, even though the odds against winning a week in Puerto Vallarta were 1,500 to 1. A few days later a young man telephoned and said I had won one of several prizes, the nature of which was to be determined after I attended a brief sales presentation. He was so enthusiastic he almost chirped , so I thought, what the hell, a free week in Mexico was worth a few minutes of hustle.
The presentation was held in a closed room which contained several small tables. At each table were contest winners and a sales representative. Mine was a middle-aged woman with a look of animal desperation in her eyes. The presentation itself was led by a young man with slicked-back hair who never stopped smiling, talking or gesturing. He moved a little like a part-time instructor in rock-aerobics, except that he didn't sweat. I don't believe he ever has. His name was Nick.
Nick showed us slides of Holiday Inns in romantic places. Beautiful women at pool side and handsome men before silver platters piled high with gourmet food. Like Nick, they were all smiles and perspiration-free. Then he got down to the nitty-gritty of trying to sell us membership in a cut-rate travel club intended to take us wherever a Holiday Inn existed.
I asked How much? several times. Nick managed to ignore me, although he did smile in my direction once.
Finally, the sales reps at each table took over. Animal-lady spoke nonstop without punctuation. Only under pressure did she eventually say I had several options but the one costing about $3,000 would offer me the most benefits. Sign here before the offer expires.
"I'm not interested," I said. "All I want is my prize."
She looked at me as though I had just crushed her puppy. The desperation in her eyes grew deeper. Then she went over everything again, not just once but four times. I said no each time.
"Good," she said, "think it over."
She left the table to talk to Nick, who, even though he continued to smile, seemed less than friendly as he glanced my way. I was beginning to feel not only that I might not get my prize but that I might have to make a sudden dash for the door to escape, like an East German racing for Checkpoint Charlie.
The feeling was heightened when my sales rep came back to the table and started all over with exactly the same spiel. It occurred to me I was being brainwashed.
"Look," I interrupted, remembering how the Marine Corps had taught me to behave if ever taken prisoner, "I don't want to buy membership in your damned club. I want my prize, I want it now and I want to get the hell out of here."
The desperation in her eyes turned to cold fury. I felt like a squid in the path of a hammerhead shark. She left again, spoke to Nick, who waved in disgust (still smiling, not sweating), and returned to say I could go, my prize was in the hall. Good riddance.
Outside, I got to stick my hand into a wire basket and draw an envelope. I won a cut-rate room in downtown Las Vegas. I would rather spend a month in hell than a night in Las Vegas. I tore up the certificate and left.
The incident did, however, cause me to think more kindly of my old city editor. He was, after all, right. There are no free bottles of whiskey. I'm just glad there's life after sales pitches.