The message slip carried the legend: "Reader wants to know why suburban chain stores won't quote prices on the phone. She says this is unpatriotic in these times of oil shortage."

I picked one of the stores at random and dialed its number. There was no answer. After 29 rings, I dialed another store in the chain.

When my call was answered, I said, "Your store manager, please."

"Which one?" a female voice asked.

"How many store managers do you have?"

"Two," she said. "One is the manager and the other is his assistant."

"The store manager, please."

"He's not in," she said.

"Tell me when to call back."

"Try in an hour."

"For whom should I ask?"

"I'm sorry," she said, "but we're not allowed to give out the names of store personnel."

"Forgive me," I said wearily. "I didn't mean to pry."

An hour later, I called again and my call was transferred to a man who gave no name but said he was the manager. "This is Bill Gold at The Washington Post," I said. "A reader has complained that your company refuses to quote prices on the telephone. Is that statement true?"

"I'm sorry," he said, "but I'll have to decline to answer your question. I prefer that you ask our home office for comment on that."

He gave me the name of an executive at headquarters, also the man's area code and phone number.

I called the number. When the executive answered, I asked him whether his company declines to quote prices by phone. He said he'd look into the matter and call me back.

An hour later, a woman called. "I'm in the publicity department," she said. "Your inquiry was referred to me."

"I have three simple questions for you," I said. "Is it true that your people are instructed not to quote prices by phone? If it is true, what's the reason for the policy? And has the policy been reviewed since the oil situation became critical?"

"It's true," she said. "The reason we don't quote prices by phone is to make it more difficult for our competitors to find out what we're doing. However, if a customer will give us his or her name and phone number, so that we can assure ourselves we're not dealing with a comparsion shopper, we're glad to call back and quote prices."

"If I told you my name was Joe Glotz," I said, "how would that give you assurance I'm not a comparsion shopper?"

"I'd really prefer not to go into that in more detail," she said. "we just don't care to be put at a disadvantage by our competitors."

The more I heard the less I understtood, so I thanked her and rang off.

A second chain was much easier to query. Its phones were answered promptly and the manager of the store I happened to call was instantly available. However, he also referred me to a higher-up -- in this case, the area manager for the chain.

The area manager acknowledged that prices are not quoted by phone and explained, "Sometimes a wrong price is quoted, or the customer misundertands what was said to him. If he finds out after driving all the way to the store that the price isn't what he expected it to be, he's likely to get quite upset. To avoid incidents of this kind, we just don't quote prices."

"One of your competitiors gave me a different explanation," I said. "They told me they don't quote prices by phone to make life more difficult for your comparison shoppers."

"Oh, that's a lot of nonsense," was the reply. "We all employ comparsion shoppers, and we're in each other's stores constantly. How can you proclaim your prices to the public but keep them secret from your competitors?"

"Don't ask me," I said. "You folks are the expert merchandisers. I'm just a dumb reporter asking questions on behalf of a reader. Do you think the oil situation makes it appropriate for your price quotation policy to be reviewed at this time?"

"If nobody else brings it up at our next managers' meeting, I'll ask for a review myself," he said. "I don't know what action the company will take, but it certainly does seem to be appropriate to help customers cut down on their driving right now." I asked him to let me know if the phone policy is changed, and he said he would. GENTLER SEX

Deadpan report from Don Epperson: "While checking in at the airline counter, I asked my wife to hold my briefcase. After takeoff, I asked her for it. She said, 'I gave it back to you before we boarded. Don't you remember?'

"I asked the stewardess if she would have the pilot radio back to see if it had been found. Twenty minutes later, the reply came: 'Tell Mr. Epperson we found his briefcase right where he left it, in the ladies' restroom.'"