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Gulps of gas send couple to Grammys

Natalie Gillespie never thought of herself as a big soda drinker. Never intended for her children to become soda fiends. She was always a good soldier in the kiddy caffeine wars.

But these days Gillespie has 2-liters stacked up 4 feet high in her garage.

She has 24-packs of soda cans stashed underneath, and all around, the air hockey table. She has 20-ounce bottles piled up next to the filing cabinet, on the kitchen counter and underneath the bathroom sink, for crying out loud.

Her obsession grew until Gillespie was cleaning Circle K's and RaceTracs out of every last bottle of A&W Root Beer, 7 UP, Sunkist and Canada Dry she could find. When she had emptied out the stores closest to her home in Woodland Waters, just off U.S. 19, she crossed the county and cleaned out the stores near Interstate 75.

Gillespie bought so much soda one convenience store actually told her to go away _ she couldn't have any more. So she drove to Tampa and bought soda there.

Over a two-month period ending in mid December, Gillespie spent $1,200 on sugar water. Families with full tummies might not spend that much on groceries.

But even now, as she is known at her kids' school as the mom who will bring the soda, Natalie Gillespie is at peace with soda. Because it is sending her and her husband to the Grammy Awards.

For years, Gillespie wrote about bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Nirvana from the privileged perch of a concert reviewer for several publications, including the St. Petersburg Times.

The one assignment she always wanted, but never got, was to cover the Grammys. Now, thanks to her frenetic soda buying, she's headed to Los Angeles next month for a "free" trip to the Grammys after she prevailed in a contest sponsored by Dr Pepper/7 UP.

You might ask if it would have been cheaper _ and much lighter in calories _ to have simply bought tickets to the Grammys, like a normal human being. But Gillespie says Grammy tickets aren't sold to the general public. Even on eBay, scalped tickets are going for $2,800 a pair.

Gillespie is getting two Grammy tickets, airfare to L.A., a room in the Hyatt Regency and $600 in traveler's checks. In all, the package is valued at $3,900. She hopes it includes some special memories.

Singer Luther Vandross, who was near death recently and is up for an award, has been on the mend, and it is rumored he will be there, Gillespie says. And she is eager to see which of the contemporary Christian bands she now writes about will carry off some hardware.

Yet the effort to win the Liquid Loot contest has taken its toll. She and her kids had to open every bottle of soda to retrieve the code under the bottle cap. (She quickly closed each back and is hopeful the fizz will remain.)

Those codes earned her "points" to spend in the contest's online auctions. But there eventually were so many loose 20-ounce bottles under foot she stopped saving them. Literally, she must have poured $100 worth of soda down the drain.

But from watching how some of the earlier auctions had gone, Gillespie realized that the gazillion points she had banked were more than enough to win.

Yet, after staying up all night in a bidding war, she fell asleep at her computer sometime around 6 a.m. When she came to, the auction had ended. Some chump with a fraction of her points was going to the Grammys with her tickets. It looked like she might just have to choke down a river of soda that, with each swallow, would remind her of her fateful lapse.

"I was scared to death," Gillespie said.

She also wondered about her marriage. Before her husband, Adam, had left on a business trip, the damage from her soda spending spree was still a manageable $500. But she had gone hog wild since. The toll had reached $1,200. She was empty-handed, and there's only so much root beer you can ask a man to drink.

Mercifully, another set of Grammy tickets were put up for auction. This time, she didn't try to follow the auction from the comfort of her bed. She locked herself in the walk-in closet that doubles as her computer workstation. The bidding went on into the wee hours.

Finally, as she sat alone among the stacks of shoes and rows of dresses, victory came for Natalie Gillespie at 3 a.m. She had beaten the soda gods and saved her marriage.

She had earned a new title: The Queen of Pop.

_ Robert King can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.

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