In the beginning, there was an ad:

It was not a very big ad, and ran in the sports section of the San Diego Union, on the page with the fishing report and the tide tables.

"AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO NOBODY," said the ad.

"Will your name be omitted from the 1980 edition of Who's Who?

"Nobody Press is currently compiling the 1980 edition of Who's Nobody in America. This handsomely bound and widely distributed reference work will, for the first time, provide a comprehensive list of American nobodies.

"If you think you might be a nobody, or know of one, at no cost or obligation, complete the attached request for applications."

End of ad.

Derek Evans and Dave Fulwiler sat back to see what would happen.

What happened was this:

"If I walk into the wrong apartment, nobody notices. Why? Because the owner of the other apartment is living unnoticed in mine."

"When I sent a request to my hometown of Lowell, Mass., for my birth certificate, they mailed the letter back to me."

"In my spare time I draw outhouses."

"We don't own a house or boat or plane and have a parrot that won't talk."

"I am a totally invisible person with the exception of heavy thighs."

"I'm the fellow that orders in the restaurant with a group of other people, and everyone else has been served, and they completely forget my order, or they spill barbecue sauce all over me."

Deluge.

The wires picked it up, and some newspapers outside San Diego carried the story. "Next thing we knew, my phone was being rung up by radio stations all over the country," says Evans. "Couple magazines . . . places I've never heard of . . . it's never stopped since then."

They were interviewed four or five times in Great Britain, where it was suggested at one point that Evans and Fulwiler compile a companion volume, entitled "Who's Not Royal." By December, there were applications from something over 8,000 avowed nobodies sitting on Evans' upstairs desk: the computer operator in Hayward, Calif.; the lithographer in New Hope, Minn.; the woman from Beloit, Wis., who identified herself as the "grandmother and bartender"; the retiree from Tampa, Fla.; the "famous unknown actor and clothes store employe" from Costa Mesa, Calif.; the unrecognized cancer researcher from Clinton, Tenn.; the brewery stationary engineer from Darrie, Ontario; the bill collector from Peaks Island, Maine; the GS-9 from West End, N.J.; the 12-year-old from Sunrise Beach, Mo. (12 years old and already a nobody?); and the woman from Topeka who said she went all the way through the receiving line at her dog sitter's wedding with people calling her "Coco's mother" or "General Fry's wife." "If life were a camera," this woman wrote, "mine would have the lens c over on."

Some of the letters came typed, single-spaced, with narrow margins, and went on for four pages. There were life stories and one line ha-has and lists of statistics (from one application: .286 Little League batting average, zero letters earned in high-school sports, zero girls dated more than once, highest test score academic year 1979: 76), and great sharp wails from squashed-down Joes reading People in the checkout stand and murmuring in the night to their closets or their dogs and listening all their lives to the clamor of public approbation for the rich and the conniving and the svelte and the grand. "Factories are the backbone of nobodies," one woman wrote. "No one has heard of me," wrote someone else, "and no one listens to me when I speak or talk."

"We get a lot of people that say, 'If you don't send me an application, I'll understand, because nobody's ever answered my mail before," says Evans.

"People who say, 'Boy that's for me,'" Fulwiler says.

"We don't think there's anything wrong with being a somebody," says Evans.

"But we think it's refreshing -- therapeutic -- to get your family and friends, take the phone off the hook, and say, 'Hey, look! I'm a nobody. Always have been. Always will be.'" Fulwiler pauses, inhales deeply. "Hey, it felt good to say it just then," he says.

Evans and Fulwiler are friends who live in San Diego, and have come, they like to think, to a kind of sublime understanding of their own position on the great baseball diamond of life.

"Utility infielder," Evans says.

"You get put on hold, and the next sound you hear is the dial tone," Fulwiler says.

"Chronically get the worst tables in restaurants, and knock over your water glass," Evans says.

Evans is a writer whose most recent work in hardcover was an orthodontic manual entitled "Straight Wire Appliance." Fulwiler is a free-lance cartoonist, who also did a stint as a nightclub comedian that by his own description was not, shall we say, destined to bust open appendix scars.

Mostly they wax philosophical about this.

But there was the matter of The Book.

The Book is "Who's Who in America," which, of course, has by now spawned so many illegitimate progeny that you could probably locate your tennis partner in "Who's Who in Baja Cleveland Park." "There's something like 286 books beginning with the title, 'Who's Who in . . . '" Evans says. "Being in a 'Who's Who' is only slightly more prestigious than being in the telephone directory."

And even if you go by the most recent calculation that somewhere around 72,000 names are currently listed in Who's Whos and ersatz Who's Whos, that still leaves an awful lot of Americans out in Nobodyland.

"If you're not in The Book, the conclusion is, you're not important," Evans says. "Which is mildly libelous. If somebody wrote a book entitled, 'Who's Honest in America,' and you're not in it, I think you'd have grounds for a suit."

They planned a multi-pronged assault.

They cut a 45 rpm record, in which Evans, his voice trembling and rising to crescendo pitch, preaches to a background rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance": "Did Dale Carnegie take you aside -- and leave you there? Did you always say you didn't want to amount to anything so you wouldn't be disappointed -- and you weren't? Does your husband sign your Valentine's Day cards, 'Warmest Personal Regards'? Do birds think you're a tree? Do dogs think you're a fire hydrant Take heart -- You're not alone; There are 229 million of us."

They made up a snappy blue t-shirt.

And they launched into their editing.

There is only one firm criterion for inclusion in the reference work. You cannot be a somebody.

"A lot of people think they can slip it by us," Fulwiler says. "But we check." "We have developed an incredible sixth sense," says Evans.

"It's an uncanny sense,' says Fulwiler.

". . . for sensing when somebody claiming to be a nobody is telling the truth," says Evans. "It's a gift from above."

They began sorting the letters into categories: Funny (50 percent), Philosophical (25 percent), and Sad (25 percent).

"I got one today. She said that when she eats with her mother, her mother sets a place for one and then cries all through dinner about why she has to eat by herself," says Evans. That goes under Funny.

"One woman said she was 51-years-old and for the most of her adult life she'd only been out of the house one afternoon a week, and that was to shop for her invalid mother," says Fulwiler. That goes under Sad.

One woman suggested establishing a national cable television network that would allow everybody to vote by video game board on state, national and world issues. "The total inability to ever be anything more than a regular person, in a regular job, fulfilling the needs of a regular wife and mother bothers me somewhat," this woman wrote, "but hopefully through the years I will mellow out and adjust to this state and be happier in my role as nobody." That is Philosophical, sort of.

They sent a Who's Nobody invitation to each of President Carter's former cabinet members -- James Schlesinger, for example: "Dear Jim, Congratulations! Due to your recent change in employment status . . ."

There is a brief pause while the reporter peruses Who's Nobody mail, Evans and Fulwiler lean back in their chairs and politely begin interviewing each other. "When's your deadline, Derek?" "Oh, January 10. How many responses do you hope to get, Dave?" "Oh, around 20,000."

"It's the American way," Fulwiler says. "It's American to want to be somebody."

"We call it the achievement syndrome," Evans says. "There are certain achievement sydromes in life. Doctor. Lawyer."

"C.P.A.," Fulwiler says.

"Photographer," says the photographer.

"We think that recognition, being a somebody, is probably more of a motivating force in this country than money," Evans says. "People want to be recognized."

"There's probably no other country where you can be a somebody in so many different fields," Fulwiler says.

"When you're flying, you look at all the little lights, and each light is a family . . ." Evans says.

". . . One street off Main Street, the main drag in town," Fulwiler says.

". . . And you wonder," Evans says. "How do those people feel?"