The letter from the "Bureau of Notification" said that if I would come to the Pine Villas recreational home development at Basye, Va., I would be the winner of one of 10 gifts.
They included a Ford Pinto, Head skis and boots, an 11-piece Corning Ware set, a shower massager, a 19-inch television, $1,000 in cash, $100 in cash, a luggage set, a microwave oven or a camera.
The Bureau of Notification is a name used by Mail Mart, a Dallas-based mail company that specializes in bulk mailing for promotional purposes. Mail Mart runs several real estate gift sweepstake programs throughout the country, including ones at Ocean City and in the Poconos.
A spokesman for Pine Villas, which has built chalets at Bryce Mountain but is not part of the Bryce Mountain Resort company, said the firm has mailed out about 31,000 promotional offers in this area since last fall.
In addition to the Pine Villas mailings, area residents are receiving gift sweepstake letters for other recreation home developments along the Eastern Shore and in the Blue Ridge mountains.
While the notice listed 10 gifts, the choice had already been made for me. A computer had made the decision based on the control number on my letter. But, the letter went on to say, "Most people expect to receive the less expensive gifts. This is to notify you that you will receive a gift or cash award other than the 11-piece Corning Ware set or Shower Massager."
All I had to do was come and get it at the Pine Villas Reception Center at Bryce Mountain, 120 miles west of Washington, where "interval ownerships" -- time-shares in individual properties -- were for sale.
"All we ask," said the letter in fine print on the reverse side, "is that you and your spouse (if married) take a courteous guided tour of our facilities. No purchase is necessary."
About 10 years ago, while traveling in Spain, I'd come across a similar deal. Free dinner was the offer. I spent an unbearable evening eating dried-out American food, Iberian style, and being subjected to a two-hour, high-pressure sales pitch for lots in Florida.
The Pine Villas offer smacked of my free dinner, but my husband agreed to accompany me to check it out. We wondered whether the gifts were bona fide and how they could give so many away.
Bryce Mountain is about 2 1/2 hours from our home. When we arrived, the receptionist asked for our letters, drivers' licences and a credit card. She gave us a form to fill out that started with innocuous questions (How long did it take you to drive here?) and escalated to the more personal (What is your annual income?).
We filled it out and spent about five minutes in a waiting area. Behind the lounge we could see a long table and the backs of people hunched over the table. "That," I whispered to my husband, "is where the hard sell takes place."
We were expecting a sleazy salesman -- shades of Spain -- when a young man in a ski sweater and wearing a friendly smile came over, introduced himself as Howard, took us to a table, offered us coffee and started a soft sell.
If we had two letters, he said, then we had two numbers. He would check them both; we could choose the better of the two prizes. Would I like a microwave oven? Maybe I'd win one.
Howard asked us if we knew anything about "interval ownership" and explained the concept. We could buy two or three weeks worth of a vacation home instead of the whole house. The deeds of 12 chalets at Bryce Mountain had been divided into 50 intervals (to reflect the number of weeks in the year minus two weeks for overhaul maintenance).
As owners of a week of two, we could rent out our share, depreciate it on our taxes and/or put it in a time-sharing pool and use another time-share owner's facility in other parts of the country and the world. Our vacation costs would be fixed at the price we paid today. We could also resell our share.
He then took us on a tour of the villas. As we left, we passed what I thought was the "hard sell" table. It was filled with men and women playing cards."What's going on?" I asked Howard.
"Those are salesmen," he said. "They're waiting for people to get here."
Howard told us between 80 and 120 people showed up on Saturday or Sunday. The day before, a Saturday, eight sales had been made, he said, adding that his firm maintained a big board with red dots that showed all houses and intervals that had been sold.
"Will we see it?" I asked.
"It's the highlight of the tour," he said.
He drove us to a hilltop to show us a lake that only property owners could use, then drove to a chalet he said was one of the few left with any time to sell.
"I'm not really a salesman", he told us. "These places sell themselves. I'm just a guide to show you around."
Howard, who couldn't have been more pleasant and unassuming, was earning money to go back to school.
The chalet he showed us had three bedrooms and a beautiful view of the mountains. One of the bathrooms had a whirlpool, which Howard flicked on, and a sauna. The dining table was set with china and crystal. Gaily printed napkins, folded so that the edges were fluted, were stuffed into wine glasses. An ice bucket and bottle of white wine were at the edge of the table.
"This is how the unit would look when you came in for your vacation," Howard said. "Someone just left and they just fixed it up, that's why I can show it to you."
It was immaculate. Vacuum cleaner wheel marks still showed on the carpet.
We drove around to see other chalets from the outside and then returned to the base lodge.
The board with the red dots was an impressive sales tool. It was a grid of all the houses, all the intervals. Almost all the squares were filled with red dots, even those squares that represented the off-season months of April and November.
Each red dot had a name and home town of the purchaser. My husband, who used to be chief of staff for a congressional investigating committee, whispered, 'I'd like to see the contracts on all those sales."
We sat down, waiting for the hard sell but wanting to get through it and down to the business of our gift. We had already spent more than an hour on tour. Howard told us we could buy into the house we saw -- entitling us to a week's stay per year during the ski season -- for $7,700, but he could offer us $500 off if we bought today. We told him we would need time to think it over.
Howard said he could understand that -- that his parents had felt that way, too, "but they bought anyway."
We offered to call him or come back if we were interested, but he said no. "This is a luxury item, an impulse item," he said. Without another letter, he added, we couldn't even come back. Only people with letters were allowed to buy, he insisted.
"You mean," I asked, "that if we brought friends with us and they were interested in buying, they couldn't?"
"That's right," he said.
We felt it was time for the prizes.
Howard took us over to a list where prize numbers were matched with gifts. Our first number, 6422, came up luggage. Our second number, 5784, also a set of luggage.
Howard went off to retrieve our prize. We stood at the front door. Another salesman, wearing dark glasses and a grim visage, hovered near by.He looked like a bouncer. We accepted our gift from Howard and, impulsively, asked if we could open it there.
"Oh no," he said. "Wait till you get into the car."
We chuckled over that line during the ride home. The luggage was the cheapest of cheap. It appeared to be made of paper. We guessed its purchase price would not have covered the cost of gas to get to Pine Villas. "They didn't even give us a choice of colors," my husband observed.
Later that evening, he was more reflective. "I knew before we went that there would be a hitch," he mused. I knew we went to see how the scheme worked. Still, I feel cheated."
On Monday, I called Elizabeth Yohe, awards director for the "Bureau of Notification." I asked her how many Ford Pintos were given away in a sweepstakes like this.
"One," she said. She would not say how many sets of luggage or what gifts was given most often. "If all the gifts aren't given away, though, we'll hold a drawing and people who've been to Pine Villas can win another prize." (Oh no, another set of luggage.)
When I asked about the $500 rebater and the buy-that-day pressure, she referred me to Lloyd Hensley, the sales manager.
"It's not that you can't come back," he said. "If you want a unit, I'll sell it to you right now. But we're selling a new concept and with a new concept, when people get away from it, they're not as apt to participate.
"I tell my salesmen not to pressure people. Let the concept sell itself. We offer gifts to get people down here. In a few years when time-sharing is no longer a new concept, we won't have to market it this way."