It was just another rainy Saturday morning when I first saw that face . . . staring out at me from the newspaper ad.

I never thought I could get so excited about a drawing of a lion's head. But this was no ordinary lion's head, it was the light at the end of the tunnel. It was the face of hope in a dismal search for a home.

Or so I thought. As we would later learn, that lion had quite a bite to it.

The story begins a few months ago as my wife and I, slowly being milked dry by the Internal Revenue Service for our failure to buy a home, were beginning to get desperate. We like our place out in Fairlington Villages, but we are only renting, and the time had come for us to buy something. The time had come, I might add, about two years ago., It had also gone several times.

But then we saw the lion. The people who were behind the Fairlington Villages development had owned the much publicized McLean Gardens project, a 723-unit condominium conversion in one of Washington's choicest Northwest neighborhoods. We knew the conversion of the complex -- now owned by a group of investors and former tenants -- was coming, but when we saw the first ad, we just knew this was going to be our year to buy.

There wasn't much to go on. Just a drawing of the lion's head that is carved on the wall in front of the development's entrance on Wisconsin Avenue and Porter Street NW.

But it did ask for any interested parties to write in for further information. "It's coming," one of the continuing teaser ads said. "It's for real."

Our ship seemed to be coming in. The prices -- "from the $50's to the $100's" -- seemed right. I figured that they probably meant thousands. But you know how they talk on Madison Avenue.

The ads also said, in rather strong terms, that prospective customers had to make appointments to get in line to buy the properties. And the apartments would be sold on a first-come-first-served basis.

Fine, I grew up in New Jersey, so I ought to be able to fight my way through any line.

We sent our card in . . . and waited.

Finally, after several weeks, we received our first communique from McLean Gardens. The postcard informed us that the company had "received our request for an invitation to a preview showing of the model condominium homes at McLean Gardens."

Then, the tone of the card hardened, informing us that we should do nothing yet but should wait for another letter inviting us to come at a specific time and day for a viewing. For some odd reason, the card also said, "Do not come to the Gardens on December 22nd, or any other date except your invitation letter date, as we will not be able to properly receive you." Properly receive us? This, we decided, was going to be something else.

But we couldn't find out what, because the card also said "it will NOT be necessary to telephone us as you will hear from us in due course."

About a week later, we got the letter.

Once again, the lion adorned the letterhead, looking more ominous than ever. He was taking on a totally different look now, almost scornful.

The form letter was our invitation. Not engraved, but it is a seller's market. Written in on the key open spaces was the important information. "Your appointment has been set for Friday, Dec. 28, at 11-7."

"NO FINAL SALES WILL BE MADE AT YOUR APPOINTMENT," the letter said. "we cannot announce final prices, nor write sales contracts, until early 1980. At this time, we are accepting non-binding reservations only, accompanied by a $2,000 refundable deposit."

Still, I knew I was doing the right thing by sticking with McLean. Of course, the letter told me so. "This preview appointment rewards your patience and foresight with an advance selection. Your reservation and deposit will protect that selection until final sales can be made."

The invitation was also described as "non-transferable."

Again, we were told, "hold any questions you may have until your appointment."

The letter did not, however, say where we should go for this preview. There was, however, a printed address at the bottom of the letterhead that appeared to be in the McLean Gardens area.

When the big day came, I decided to go over on my lunch hour. My wife, who has a real job, couldn't afford to take the time out.

When I walked into the building I was struck immediately by the fact that I was the only person there. No sales people, no secretaries, no desks. Boy, I said to myself, no high-pressure sales techniques here.

When I walked up the stairs to the preview building, I was stopped by a uniformed security man who asked me for my number. After a bit of discussion, I learned for the first time that, trained observer that I am, I had not spotted the number over my name on all of the letters that had been sent to me by McLean Gardens. I was number 278. I showed the guard my letter, and after my visit was recorded on a notepad, I was allowed to pass.

Once inside, I was ushered to a receptionist's desk. She took my letter and said she did not have the corresponding file card that she was supposed to have indicating that I was due for an appointment that day. No matter, she put my name down anyway and told me that I should go next door to look over models of the nine different types of apartments that would be available.

"After that, you may come back in here and we will schedule your appointment with a salesman," she added.

"Oh, how long will the wait be," I asked.

"Two hours," she said, without looking up. When I protested that I was on my lunch hour, she said that everyone had to wait two hours because of the heavy demand. And, she said, she wasn't allowed to give me an appointment until I was through looking at the models. To make matters worse, she said no one could quote me price estimates except the salesman, who would not meet with me unless I had an appointment.

I was dejected, but decided to wait it out. In the meantime, I took a whirlwind tour of the apartments, where three attractive women each handed me a different color poster at various junctures. Each poster told me progressively less about the development. The final one gave me the life history of the lion. A nice shopping bag was supplied to carry the posters.

The apartments were also nice, at a quick glance, but there were drawbacks. Most of the two-bedroom units only had one bathroom, for instance. At this point, however, I just wanted to find out how much they cost.

I huffed into the office, and made my appointment.

Two hours later I was escorted upstairs by a salesman. I sat down to get the inside information that I had worked so hard to secure. I had reached the center of the maze.

He just sat there.

"Am I supposed to say something?" I said. "What do you want to buy?" he said.

"How much are the units?" I said.

"Which ones?" he said.

"All of them," I said, "don't you have a list?"

He threw a yellow pad across the desk, and told me that he'd tell me the prices of units I was interested in, and I could write them down. "By the way," he said, "on all the one-bedroom units, all we have is a waiting list."

So, I asked about the two-bedroom units, naturally.

"Well, as it looks now," he said, "the two-bedroom loft is $115,500 and the two-bedroom duplex is $118,800. But it's all subject to change. Did you bring a check?"

"Isn't that a bit steep?" I suggested meekly.

"Hey, we're not giving these away, buddy," said the lion.

"I can't make any promises that the two-bedroom apartments will be available later on," he called after me.

A few days later, another letter arrived from McLean Gardens with the information that my appointment had been set for Friday, Jan. 4, 1980, 12-2 p.m.

The letterhead was the same as the first invitation, except that the company's phone number was removed.

That's all right. I will really not be getting in touch, anyway.