By Bill Monson

I knew something was wrong when the steel filing cabinets began to hum.

It was 11:15 a.m. on Monday, December 22 – the day before my birthday. My wife Polly and I were standing in an alcove display of four-drawer cabinets stacked on two-drawer types in the Staples store in San Luis Obispo.

The hum became a rattle as the drawers jiggled in the empty cabinets.

"What’s that?" Polly asked--but we already knew the answer.

As we backed out of the alcove, the drawer rattle was joined by other rattles, by clicking and clacking, creaks and groans. Voices cried out in alarm. Someone shouted, "Get out!" Someone else shouted back, "Get in a doorway!"

A big box store really only has one doorway – in which are several sliding drawers of glass. Nearly all the rest is aisles of shelves with all kinds of goods ready to leap out at you. Polly opted to run for the door. I chose to stay in the office furniture section. (Page 5 of our local phone books says not to run outside during a quake because you may get hit by falling debris –or bursting glass doors!) A woman saw me standing by a support pole that ran all the way to the roof. It seemed to be flexing a little, and I grasped it to see if I could tell which way the tremors were rolling. They seemed to go roughly north and south – which made sense since California’s fault lines run southeast to northwest. Not very helpful, though, as far as self-preservation was concerned.

"Should I get under a desk?" the woman asked me. "Not the way this furniture is made," I said.

She got under it anyway. Well, I thought, particle board is as good as pine to the person in the coffin.

The rolling continued. I had no trouble keeping my balance. I’d experienced greater rolls on a steamer off the Farallon Islands west of San Francisco.

I checked the ceiling. Banks of flourescent lights hung east and west from the ceiling on long, thin poles. They serpentined along their lengths like neon snakes. I stared up, fascinated. I wasn’t scared, only bemused at the behavior of other people and inanimate objects acting like living creatures. The reporter-witness in me had kicked in; I was starting this column even as the rolling eased.

I didn’t entirely abandon my self-preservation instincts. One ear was tuned for the "crack" that means a ceiling or wall is going. I had a two- stride line on a solid oak desk with an unoccupied kneehole. In the meantime, I’d observe and remember. Eventually the tremors faded away. The woman crawled out from under her particle wood desk and headed rapidly for the exit. So did others. I stayed where I was, watching the snaky florescents. A female cash register noticed my presence and came to herd me away.

To her dismay, I moseyed along, stopping to to look down aisles of shelves to see what had fallen. Nothing! Zilch! Nada!

I complimented her on the store’s ability to withstand what was obviously a strong earthquake.

"Thank you," she said, "and will you please get the hell out the door!"

I did.

Car alarms were bleating all over the shopping center. (Ours had gone off, too –but in Grover Beach exactly one hour before! Coincidence? Pre-shock? Who knows?)

Rejoining my perturbed wife, we climbed in our Camry and headed back for Pismo Beach. On the way, we tuned to our local station for Civil Defense. (It’s easy to remember since it’s 1400 – the same as WGIL in Galesburg.) No emergency broadcasts. Just Burl Ives singing about a "Holly Jolly Christmas."

By tuning to San Francisco, we learned the earthquake was a 6.5 located in the hilly wilderness behind Hearst Castle up by Cambria. (The geologists are still debating which fault was the culprit.) Thanks to the insight of architect Julia Morgan and her use of concrete back in the early 1920s, the castle suffered no structural damage and very little harm to its contents. (Twelve pieces out of 22,500 works of art will need repairs.)

However, Paso Robles, located about 20 miles from the epicenter, lost much of its historic downtown because the buildings had unreinforced brick walls. Two women died. Atascadero, Morro Bay, and the Mission San Miguel also suffered serious damage. Forty injuries were reported in the county.

My first concern was whether the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant located north of Avila Beach was damaged. (We here on the Central Coast dread glowing in the dark someday.) It wasn’t – but the town of Oceano to the south of Pismo lost buildings and homes and had to boil its drinking water for two days. San Luis Obispo suffered no serious damage and neither did Pismo Beach – but electrical service was knocked out temporarily around them. Happily, Lopez Dam – which holds back the lake which serves as our local reservoir – was not breached or I might have done this column in a canoe.

When we got back to our mobile home, I peered underneath to check the jacks, fearful our double-wide had been jolted off them. All okay – but inside, books and knick-knacks had tumbled from the bookcases. Dishes all okay, no broken gas or water lines. Telephone and electricity functioning. Our only loss was a toppled lamp that cracked its socket.

How about that for an early birthday present?