DESPERATELY SEEKING SUNDRIES

NATIONAL SCAVENGER HUNT BECOMES AN OBSESSION

One day last October, Robin Asaki spent the better part of an afternoon frantically racing around Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport looking for an air-sickness bag. Not just any air-sickness bag, mind you. The bag had to be unused, which was understandable enough. Not so understandably, the bag also had to bear the imprint of an airline based outside the United States and Canada. Three hours later, the 38-year-old Scottsdale woman finally found relief at the Aeromexico counter. "It's really kind of embarrassing to have to go around asking strangers for things like throw-up bags," confesses Asaki, the mother of two. "But after a while, you get used to it."

While Robin Asaki is not ill in any medical sense, the former kindergarten teacher does suffer from contest fever. It's a recurring affliction she shares with her husband Howard, a physician's assistant who won $13,000 on Jeopardy! a few years back and once spent two days pressing his lips against the hatchback window of a car in an attempt to win a "Kiss the Yugo" contest. The couple's competitive malady flared up again last fall, when Games magazine announced a national scavenger hunt. The contest required entrants to locate 30 items ranging from the relatively accessible air-sickness bag to arcane ephemera like a totally black postcard featuring the message "[some city] at night." The top prize? A trip to New York City, where the winner would spend a week working as guest editor at Games magazine.

"We were determined to win this time," explains Asaki, who was a non-prize-winning finalist in two earlier hunts staged by the magazine during the Eighties. Aided by a fellow contest enthusiast (the sole guest to show up at a "Scavenger Hunters Deprogramming Party" Asaki had advertised in a personal column at the conclusion of the 83 search), Asaki and her family flew into action.

Several of the coveted items turned up right under the Asakis' own roof. A baseball card picturing a capless player turned up in her 6-year-old son's card collection, while the family crayon jar yielded an elusive burnt-umber Crayola crayon (the company stopped manufacturing that color several years ago). But where to find a discontinued pull tab from a beer can? Hoping to stumble across the site of a bygone boondocker, Asaki and company spent one fruitless afternoon combing the desert floor for the elusive flip-top tab.

Several days later, however, fate smiled on the scavengers in the form of heavy rainfall. "The house we were living in at the time had desert landscaping," recalls an astounded Asaki. "When I walked out into the yard after the storm, here was the exact pull tab we were looking for! Evidently, the rain had washed away the pebbles that were covering it. It was such an incredible coincidence, it was kind of spooky."

One side benefit of the contest was that entrants got to catch up on current events--however belatedly. Faced with the challenge of finding the front page of a newspaper from July 1992 containing two words of six letters or more that were anagrams of each other (whew!), Asaki headed for the library morgue. Piles of old news later, she eventually located a front page that contained the words "dealer" and "leader."

Later, she and her husband "spent days" poring over old personal ads in newspapers, looking for an ad of ten lines or less that included all 26 letters of the alphabet. "That was one of the most frustrating things on the list," says Asaki. "We kept finding 25 letters--the Q was nearly impossible to find." The couple finally hit pay dirt when they ran across a mate seeker with a thing for "quiet walks."

Asaki can relate. "I know it's hard to believe, but my husband and I are usually pretty quiet people ourselves," she explains. "As a rule, we're not competitive people. But when the hunt is on, something happens to us. It's like the chutzpah kicks in or something."

Which might explain why the "quiet" pair found themselves prowling through shopping-mall parking lots, leaving notes on strangers' cars in the hope they could be persuaded to part with their yellow "[anything but 'Baby'] on Board" signs. Or how they happened to buttonhole puzzled theatregoers at a play one night while in search of a ticket stub for a particular seat and row. "This lady got very excited when I asked if I could have her ticket stub," says Asaki. "She wanted to know if she'd won a prize. I said, 'No--but I might.'"

That she did. Although results of the contest will not be published until the magazine's next issue, Asaki has already received her prize: a Games tee shirt she gave to one of her children. According to Games' associate editor Peter Gordon, this year's contest attracted 223 entries; about 75 contestants (including Asaki) amassed all 30 items. Meanwhile, Asaki can't wait until the next hunt rolls around. "You get into a very competitive mindset," she laughs. "Suddenly, you realize you've been so busy trying to anagram words on the front of a newspaper that it's nine o'clock at night and you haven't fed the kids all day.

 
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