I'm walking along, daydreaming about finding a briefcase containing $800,000, when I meet a Coast Guardsman who tells a funny story about how he outfoxed the federal bureaucracy.

He's being transferred to Oklahoma at government expense, he says.Thing is, the Coast Guard will pay only for moving household goods. He'll have to pay the freight for his canoe himself.

So what does he do? He fills the canoe with dirt, puts begonias in it and lists it with the furniture as a planter.

I laugh at his resourcefulness. He departs and I think the story is funny enough to be in Life in These United States.

Say, hey! It hits me. Maybe Reader's Digest would find the story amusing, too, and in less than five minutes I've pounded out 60 words on my old rim- fire Royal and sent them off to Pleasantville, N.Y.

Six months later, long after I've forgotten about the incident, I open the mail while wondering how to pay the fuel bill when a check for $300 falls out of an envelope.

With the check is a note from the Editorial Rights and Permission Department of Reader's Digest. We're pleased to enclose . . . payment for the attached item, scheduled for page 80 of the Digest, says the note. A proof of my 60-word contribution (with illustration, yet,) is attached.

Quickly I figure I've been paid $5 a word, an astronomical figure in the world of publishing. I've written articles of great sociological and historical significance, articles that required months of research, rejoicing when I was paid 10 cents a word.

And now, for a 60-word joke, I've been paid 50 times that rate.

I deposit the check, pay off my bills before being jarred by the telephone ringing.

Hello? You sent in that piece in the Reader's Digest? It was very good. I enjoyed it. I sent one in, too. How long will I have to wait until I get my check?

It is the first in a series of calls, all from people who sent in contributions to Life in These United States and who are waiting for their $300.

I tell them not to hold their breath. I tell them that Reader's Digest receives 190,000 items for Life in These United States each month, that they are piled up on the floor of a warehouse with millions of others and that the editors send a copyboy with a pitchfork to toss out 500 from which nine or 10 are selected.

(Reader's Digest editors told me later they get 15,000 contributions each month and that each and every one is read. Uh huh. And the moon is made of green cheese.)

My notoriety spreads. An old friend stops by to tell me he sold an item to Reader's Digest. A stranger buttonholes me in an elevator. Didn't I see you in Reader's Digest? I shuffle my feet, look down, blush and admit he had.

My friendly, hometown weekly newspaper receives and publishes a press release from Reader's Digest telling of my good fortune, making me fearful of an onslaught of bill collectors anxious to share in the largesse.

A sign painter I know throws a copy of the magazine into the back seat of my car. An old girl friend drives into the parking lot, leans out of her car and says, Oooh, Carl, you are so wonderful, getting that $300.

Nobody remembers what the item in Life in These United States is about. Everyone remembers the $300. But fame is fleeting. In two weeks I'm again day dreaming about finding a briefcase containing $800,000.

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