We got the shock of our life the other morning. Well, maybe the shock of the month is more like it. These are shocking times, and nobody should make them worse by exaggerating. But there it stood, in the center of our mailbox, the envelope bearing the words in flaming red: ''Overnight Express Letter.'' From left to right, just above the cellophane address window, galloped five horses in silhouette, white on red, signaling further urgency. Why, you could hear the poor nags snort from racing to get this bulletin to us.
The letter inside began with a box sternly framed in black, announcing: ''Notice of Cancellation.''
''Dear Selectee,'' it read. ''We carefully select individuals who will definitely receive awards in major national programs. Previously we selected and notified you to claim an award but you didn't.''m
Vaguely we remembered a come-on letter, beginning: ''Congratulations! You've just won a valuable prize - with no strings attached!''Thatm sort of a letter. A ten-speed bicycle - or was it a portable TV? - had our name on it, if only we would visit a condominium on Cape Cod. Or was it a chalet in New Hampshire?
Evidently we had hurt the feelings of the nameless real estate tycoon by looking his absolutely-no-obligation gift horse in the face, and now he was writing us off his guest list. With a rather tense effort at patience he explained to us: ''These expensive major award programs are only effective if we select award recipients who respond and claim their awards.''
By not accepting the ten-speed bicycle - or was it a TV set? - we'd been rude and inconsiderate, and more. No wonder there was a recession, with non-award-recipients like us around. That was how it looked to the rejected gift-giver. But he was ready to forgive. If we repented of our callous, non-receptive ways, not only was the gift still waiting, he was prepared to toss in a ''portable gym set as an extra bonus.''
On the other hand, what if we persisted in our un-American behavior, ignoring his largesse? A very definite threat replaced the very definite gift. ''As a non-responder,'' our benefactor warned, ''your national eligibility is being reviewed for cancellation unless you respond to this final award notice and claim your award.''
We belong to the generation that worries about any eligibility being cancelled, not to mention our ''national eligibility.'' After a career of paying even our charge card bills in full, three weeks ahead of time, were we now about to lose our good name in the financial community because we had thoughtlessly neglected to accept a ''major award''?
We could hear computers from coast to coast clicking in the information beside our name: ''Bad gift risk.''
Anyone in good standing as ''Occupant'' must sooner or later share the predicament. A while ago a colleague passed on an impressive collection of envelopes with red words (if not horses) that had piled up in her mailbox:
''FREE VALUABLE GIFTS if you act before deadline date! $100,000 SUPERPRIZE.''
''More than 14,000 prizes being offered with this new BARGAIN BULLETIN!''
''GUARANTEED: The sum of at least $100,000 and possibly $125,000 CASH.''
''YOU MAY HAVE ALREADY WON $10,000!!''
One return address read simply ''Prize Award Headquarters,'' under the spreading wings of a red eagle.
''Something for nothing!'' all our grandfathers and grandmothers would have harrumphed. But they, poor souls, never enjoyed the advantages of belonging to the world of ''Have you played your number today?''
Still, this strong-arm tactic of the red-horse riders goes too far - drumming people out of respectable society for not grabbing a freebie. Even those who have the bad taste in these hard times to believe that life is a lottery must find it reprehensible to be hounded in exactly the same way as a bankrupt.
Will a gift-enforcer embarrass us with phone calls to the office, naming us as a dead-beat? We're taking no chances. We're writing a form letter, headed, ''Notice of Cancellation of Your Cancellation,'' letting all junk-mailers of prizes know that they're off our eligibility list.
We haven't decided on our envelope design yet, but we're thinking of featuring five very muscular red-white-and-blue mules - digging in.