Ronnie’s ‘Pie Story’


Any time of the day is a good time for pie.”
__Fabienne in “Pulp Fiction”

A friend of mine died in 2005… Ron Nakamrua… a great guitarist, a man of unselfish generosity and humor…He and I went ‘way back’ as they say. He is featured in my ‘Reflections On The Garcia’ writing.

This bit of business was one of his favorite stories and he often begged me to recount it. For a time we even made it into a song like a talking blues… I got to thinking about him and that story so I thought I’d share it because I know he’d like me to tell it one more time…

Once upon a time Ronnie, I, Jimmie (Jimbo) Carmichael and Dan Swetlik (with occasional appearances by Ed Donnelan) were in a little almost-jug band called ‘Polecat’. We played Grateful Dead stuff, a little Eagles, things like that…

Ronnie played brilliant lead guitar on his marvelous Martin D-35, Jim handled most of the vocals and Dan played bass and sang harmony. I was playing Dobro for the group. We were several cuts above a garage band, making little gigs here and there and getting together for rehearsals, alternating between Dan or at Jimbo’s house. We had a nice little following.

We had a lot of stories to tell… One day I’ll tell about the time Jim lost the band truck in San Francisco but today I’ll tell you Ronnie’s Pie Story.

Now it happened that my thirty fifth birthday was drawing nigh and being born on April first as I am causes me to exercise a certain amount of caution on my natal anniversary. ‘Getting through a birthday’ has a little more meaning for me than it does for most mortals.

Little did I know my thirty-fifth would have a special ‘sweetness’ to it.

We had gathered at Jimmie’s on this occasion for a rehearsal and we were taking a break. It was about eight thirty or so… dark out.

Jim said “Anyone want to smoke one?” …the times being what they were, folks were known to take a little smoke of cannabis on occasion (only for the camaraderie, of course. It would be bad manners to refuse.)

I knew I was up for it but Jim said, “We have to do it outside so’s not to smell up the house.” I should have seen this as an omen, a portend, of mischief because this had never been a concern before. Still, it was a reasonable request because marijuana does have a pungent odor.

So we went outside on a moonless night illuminated only by the back porch light. We passed the doobie around in good fellowship.

Ron then asked me if I wanted to hear a joke. “Hail no!” I said.

Now folks…having Ron tell you a joke was a challenge to one’s comprehension because he would usually go into fits of laughter during the telling and be incapable of finishing the damn thing coherently. Often by the time he gasped out the punch line the joke will have lost its momentum and the punch line would go flat…

So, in spite of my protests, he starts this long rambling tale, commencing to crack up in the telling as usual.
At last he seemed to be bringing it to a merciful end. There he stands, laughing his head off, while I’m waiting for the punch line. Finally, I get impatient and say:

“Let me have it.”

Ronnie looks at me in mid laugh, almost unbelievingly, and says “What?”

“I said…Let me have it.!”

Okay!” said Ron with a grin of sheer delight…”You asked for it”…

And I saw, almost in stop motion, his hand come from behind his back holding a coconut cream pie which he plants firmly in my face.

There is no experience quite like it, folks… You can watch all the old slapstick movies you want that feature such shenanigans but there is no substitute for the real event.

I remember reacting with a stunned roar, momentarily immobile but not for long. I was looking over my glasses for someone to grab and punish when the next surprise was unloaded… a bucket of water splashed on my chest. Ice water…

Cold! That slowed me down and a second bucket of water at groin level pretty much stopped me gave the miscreants ample time to flee. I saw one scurry over a fence and Dan virtually flew over the rear gate.
I was half blind and wet and cold and about as disoriented as one could be.

After a beat or two, one of the guys asked if it was safe to approach me and I said it was because I was of two minds… outraged that such a thing had been done to my person and at the same time the realization had started to sink in that not many people had undergone such an experience. and I could see it was every bit as ludicrous in life as it seemed when done in the movies.

The boys had planned well. They had the setup planned weeks in advance, even to the point of having a dry jumpsuit set aside so I could shower and change (and cool off a bit) allowing us to all have a great laugh, not at my expense, but at the whole project and its brilliant execution. Ronnie had thoughtfully provided some ‘sip of the day’ (Peach Brandy) to assist in the warming up process…

That is the essence of ‘Ronnie’s Pie Tale’ and it achieved the status of near myth over the years.

It did have some negative footnotes however…

We were scheduled to play at a now defunct beer and wine joint called “The Rhinoceros’ that once existed across from the legendary Gelb Music store. It was early in the evening. The place was empty and the boys were back in the main showroom getting set up. I was in the bar drinking coffee.

Alan, one of the bartenders, brought in a familiar looking box… a pie box! I rose to my most threatening height and put on my War Face but Alan said… ”No, wait… we thought you should have a pie to eat for your birthday.”

Well, that was an altogether different matter so I picked up the pie and took it into the main showroom intending to show it to the boys but they all scattered like marbles dropped on a linoleum floor when they saw that pie in my hands. They didn’t want to share evidently.

About a week later we went to play a gather at a rented hall at the San Mateo YMCA, when the line between fun surprise and malice blurred and started to spoil the effect.

That very night someone mushed Ronnie with a chocolate cream pie. He didn’t take it well but the poor guy had no recourse to get it all off him until he got home. No shower and jumpsuit waiting for him. All he had was the facilities available in the rest room and we had a show to play. I’ll tell you from experience it takes a couple of showers to get the sugary-ness off. So the poor guy was gooey and grumbly about it for the rest of the night.

It became dangerous for anyone in our circle to have a birthday for a while after that. They tried to pie Dan the bass player, whose birthday was near mine by a couple of days but he avoided the pie assassins. Jimbo got blindsided at a joint called ‘The Rusty Pelican’. Ed Donnelan, a frequent band mate, told us that “…the ‘pie tradition’ that year, cost me a bloody nose and a loose tooth because the perpetrator’s of my ‘pieing’ neglected to fully thaw the frozen banana cream prior to “surprising” me with it.”

Finally one of our number from our fan base, Rick Chatfield, got slightly injured which should illustrate to the masses that your standard surprise party is a much safer and saner way of doing things. They know what they were talking about when they say ‘Kids, Don’t Try This At Home.’

So then the pie in the face routine faded into the realm of Legends Told…

The thing I remember most about it though, isn’t the pie in the face as much as it was listening to Ronnie laugh because he knew what was about to happen… he loved to laugh…

Here’s to you Ronnie…thanks for the memories… miss you terribly…

…an interesting email

My Grateful Dead write-up, (Reflections on The Garcia) originally written as a free flow learning exercise for learning MS Word, took on a life of its own once I finished it. I edited it three times and at this point I’m not that happy with it but I know enough to leave it alone.

It has been around the world and every once in a while I get a really special sounding email from total strangers.
This one is hard to top

From: Nicholas Meriwether
Sent: Friday, September 20, 2013 9:07 AM
Subject: Greetings from the Grateful Dead Archive

Dear Norm,
I am the archivist in charge of the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz. I came across your very fine and eloquent essay on your time with Jerry and I wanted to email and thank you so much for writing and sharing it.
I edit a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to the Dead and I am wondering if you might like to allow your fine essay to be published in the next issue. Your essay deserves as wide an audience as possible, I believe – - and while the journal doesn’t pay (me or anyone), it does let your work live in academic libraries and allow it to be consulted by good scholars, historians, and fans.
Please let me know if this might appeal to you, and regardless, should your travels bring you to Santa Cruz, I hope you’ll stop by the Library and let me introduce myself and give you a tour of the Archive exhibit.
With many thanks in advance for your time,


Nicholas Meriwether
Grateful Dead Archivist
McHenry Library, UC Santa Cruz
1156 High St., Santa Cruz, CA 95064

… I accepted, of course…

The Lunch Break

Back in the seventies, shortly after Sidney Gelb sold his music store we three, Kevin Jarvis, Henry White and myself were caught up in the hirsuteness of the day. Kevin had longish hair and a mustache, I had long hair and a trimmed beard and Henry, he of the red locks, had a trimmed beard and longish hair too.
Kevin and I went to hair stylists which were legion back in those days but Henry used one of the razor combs you can get that allow you to trim your own hair.
We were truckin,’ as they say… up to date….in Style!

On this particular day, both Henry and Kevin decided to take lunch at the same time. Kevin had an errand to run and Henry wanted to go home and eat and had it in mind to give himself a trim while he was there. It was a quiet day so I didn’t mind.

I guess I was looking at a catalog or something when Henry came back from lunch and breezed through the door. I remember I didn’t even glance up and didn’t give a thought to him going behind the counter to stand behind me.
But his silence was off putting so I looked up…

He looked like a Parris Island boot! All of his beautifully maintained hair was Gone!

He stood there with an abashed grin on his face. I was momentarily speechless. But only momentarily…

“Don’t say a word,” I said, “Kevin will be back shortly and you can tell us both at once.”

Almost on cue, Kevin came in and he too was momentarily speechless. So then we heard the tale, which is now legend.

It turns out, what had happened was that when Henry went home he had decided to take a shower. While in the shower he decided to put his razor comb to use. This was something he normally did when his hair was dry.

Welllll…. instead of a trim the razor comb took a chunk of hair and, panicking, Henry tried to even it up by eye to no avail. Finally he went to a rescue barber he knew who took one look at him and shook his head. “Abandon all hope.” said he… And he gave Henry a burrcut that would have made any drill instructor proud.

All three of us taught guitar so poor Henry got the dubious pleasure of having to relate his tale of woe to maybe twenty wide eyed little guitar pickers…
He got his story down pat and stuck to it.

After that incident it was years before he let anything sharp touch a hair on his head.

The New ATM Machine

It has been quite a while since I’ve had to use the local ATM machine at my credit union. My tax return check had come in so I made plans to deposit it with speed and efficiency.

I had it down to a science. I had a stash of ATM envelopes at home so I could put in my deposit slip, endorse the check and fill out the required information on the envelope in the comfort of my home. Make my run, pop in the card, tap the buttons, insert envelope and I’m out of there in about two minutes max!

Slick, right?
I prepare my deposit slip, endorse the check. I go to the ATM at the credit union and see it is a new machine. Nice!
I do the usual punch button routine and get ready to ‘insert envelope.’ I find that it no longer takes envelopes! There is no slot big enough for an envelope. It just wants the naked check!

Fibble fumble with an envelope that now thinks it is Fort Knox and refuses to open.
The machine, of course is demanding the naked check, humming, hissing and clanking irritably.
I finally get the envelope open and feed in the check. I didn’t notice I had also fed in my deposit slip so the machine took umbrage and spat both back at me, rather contemptuously, I might add.
I drop the check
Being old and creaky, picking up a check now laying, nay, clinging, flat on the ground is something of a battle.
I finally pick it up and feed it into the now nearly furious machine.
Mission accomplished! Charlie Chaplin would have been proud!

The four people waiting for me to finish my act, not so much…

The Creation of the NormHead Avatar

This is one of those stories that may bore you to tears but I do get asked about this from time to time.

My avatar. The “norm head” drawing, cartoon, silhouette, of the hat, beard feather and glasses that I post just about everywhere. “Avatar” is defined thusly:

“In computing, an avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user’s alter ego or character.”

Mine came about in this way…

I was reading a book by the cartoonist Bill Mauldin. He achieved fame, actually won a Pulitzer Prize by drawing black and white cartoons for the military “Stars and Stripes newspaper during WWII. His works were usually about two war weary GI’s “Willie and Joe,” tired, unshaven and irreverent.

In any case, as Bill described his venture into cartooning he made specific reference to a certain brush he used. It was a Winsor-Newton Series 7 #2. He said it was a standard tool used by all the cartoonists of the day.

At the time I read the book I was making my own forays into art. Water colors. I eventually did a lot of paintings of women and called them “Paper Dolls” after that old Mills Brothers song.

What was so special about those brushes? Well, what it was that they would “point” when you loaded them with ink or color and gave a snap of the wrist or a tap on your rinse tank. This tendency to come to a point allowed the artist to control the shape of his line from straight and thin to a taper or swelling in the line. If you look closely at some of the lines drawn by the great pre-computer cartoonists you’ll see what I mean.

So I went and bought one. Relatively expensive for a brush that almost looks like the one you got in your tin watercolor kit as a kid.

I took the thing home, opened my black ink bottle and tried to think of a way to test my new brush. So I just did a quick self portrait. It couldn’t have taken more than thirty seconds. It covers and area about six inches square. This was in December of ’85.

I liked it. It was a lucky shot that came out well.

Just about that time I had decided to change banks. I asked the check lady if I could put my own logo on my personal check. She actually sort of sidestepped it. “It will cost you extra.”
“How much?”
“Twenty five dollars.” And you have to have camera ready artwork.

A piece of cake! Off I went to the Xerox machine with my self-portrait and made a copy and brought it to her.
“Oh!” she said, “It looks just Like you!”

So, there it was! I had it on my checks! Heeee…! It looked Great! I have since changed banks three times and oddly, they always made a fuss about having the checks done that way but when I told them I would take my money elsewhere if they didn’t allow it the barricades fell.

Some time later I spent a bit of money and had stickers made of it about the size of a five cent piece. I used those as property markers and around 2010 had “norm head” pins made to pass out. Those have been Great Fun and it is a warm feeling to know that people actually asked for them.

Of course I used the avatar, as it was defined earlier, in just about any application computer-wise. Any chat boards I belong to that allow avatars has the now nearly trade-mark like norm head avatar. I figured out how to make my computer include it in a return address form on the left end of my envelopes too. I even had one put on a coffee mug! Fun!

My beard is a lot whiter now but it still looks like me in profile. That little quick test sketch with the Winsor-Newton Series 7 #2 brush in 1985 has stood me in good stead over the years.

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it…