Auctioneer Joel Headley and the two women were concentrating on the bedside table lamp of imitation milk glass with a banana-yellow shade. The two women were bidding against each other for it, and Headley had his chatter going at a good clip.

"I'm bid nine-go-ten-see-nine-hear-tendoyawanit?" The woman in the third row nodded; so did the woman in the back of the barn, but the auctioneer missed her bid.

"Who'll go eleven-got-ten-go-eleven?" Seeing no bids for $11, Headley sold it for $10 to the woman up front. That's when the yelling started. The woman in the back screamed across the crowded auction barn, "I bid ten dollars. It's my lamp!"

After 15 years of auctioneering, Headley knew exactly how to handle the situation. He settled the dispute by starting the bidding again. This time, the woman at the back got the lamp - but it cost her $20.

Auctions can drive you crazy, but it's fun crazy. What better way to spend a Saturday in the country? Sipping cider and eating country ham sandwiches and home-baked cake - an coming home with maybe a bargain, maybe a white elephant, but with a story to go with every buy.

If you do your homework, you can avoid the mistake of the woman who paid too much for that lamp. Get to the auction early. Most of the more than 50 country auctions that take place every weekend within three hours of Washington start at 10 a.m. Look over what's for sale that day. You'll find everything from antiques to used furniture, TV sets and a lot of junk, which autioneers prefer to call "collectibles." If you're interested in something, and you think it might be in the "antique" category - that is, close to a hundred years old - ask the auctioneer about it. He'll tell you all he knows and you can usually trust him.

Let's say you find a stuffed rocking chair of dark mahogany with seat and back covered in burgundy velvet. Ask youself what it would cost you new and set your limit well below that. In D.C. department stores, you won't find a rocker like that for less than $200, but at an auction you have a good chance of getting it for half that price.

The rocker comes up for bidding. The numbered card you got when you registered at the entrance should be in your hand. The auctioneer will start the bidding high.

"Who will give me $100?" No takers. He'll lower the price until he gets a bid. But more often than not, the price will climb back to where the auctioneer started.

"Who'll give me $25?" Your raise your card. You get butterflies for the first time since the dramatics class in high school.

"Thirty - do I have $30?" Others join the bidding and the price hops to $35. You bid $40. Someone nods to $45, and you're one-on-one now. The auctioneer is asking for $50, your limit. You bid it. After what seems like forever, the auctioneer says, "Sold. Number 144." The rocker is yours, a bargain at $50.

Under certain circumstances, you can be released from your bid on an item. But you have to have a good explanation. "I can't afford it" is not good enough. Discovering a defect the auctioneer failed to point out is. If you weren't able to examine what you bid on before the auction, do so immediately after you buy it. Plug in the electrical appliances to see if they work.

You won't get everything you bid on. If you find yourself saying either "I've got to have it" or "There'll never be another one like it," get out of the bidding fast: You're losing your self-control.

You're bound to run into competition from antique dealers. They're at every auction - the ones who, item after item, stay in the bidding. Dealers usually come in pickup trucks or vans to cart their purchases back to the shop in Georgetown.

One thing dealers have in common is their impact on auction prices, which double or triple when they get into the bidding. Watch what the dealers are bidding on that day. If they're grabbing up the cut glass, bid on sterling silver. Their rejects are you bargains.

It pays to stick around until the end of the auction. By 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, the crowd is thinning out and the auctioneer wants to get rid of his "collectibles." A Franklin stove will go for $25, a desk needing a coat of paint for $10, an assortment of boxes, full of cups and saucers and picture frames, will be gaveled off for a dollar or less.

You don't have to be a collector or a dealer to take advantage of auctions. If you're furnishing a home on a budget and want things that have a lot more charm than chrome and Plexiglass, try an auction. It's a lesson in assertiveness and a rare chance to play a part in what you pay for something, which makes spending the fun. WHERE THE AUCTION ACTION IS The large auction houses advertise their sales in newspaper classified sections under "Auction Sales" or "Estate Sales." If you want to receive advance notice, call Headley's in Winchester; Kleinfelter's of Lebanon, Pa.; Law's of Manassas; or Dixon's in Crumpton, Md., and ask to have your name added to their mailing list. To find out about the local community auctions, you have to drive out into the country. Watch for road signs, and pick up a copy of the local newspaper. On an average weekend in the Winchester area, for example, you'll find as many as 10 auctions.