I always knew it was gonna hurt. Burn, sear, rip, tear, and wallow out a hole in a man's heart. Without one shred, one scrap, or one iota of a doubt-the story of Ralph has been the hardest one to write. The burning, searing, painful loss of a good friend and mentor has proven to numb with the hands of the hourglass of time, but never fully disappear. Ralph Eugene Wade was my hero, my fishing mentor, my best friend, and at the same time someone I would get the teeth knocked out of my face to protect. The wife used to tell us, "You two are just alike I swear it!" Just as he may have had his demons in younger years, I've had my own as well. I do believe he recognized a kindred spirit in me, just as I did with him. I loved that old man. And there aren't many folks that I do really respect and like, but he was one of them. He was loyal, he served our country with distinction, he would give you the shirt off his back, and he didn't carry a mean bone in his body like so many do after a few years existing on this old Earth. And that's why every beach sunrise, every beach mile, every sight of a surf trout landed, and every afternoon when the Trade winds begin to blow their age old song on Padre he is never fully gone. He lives on in my heart, in Billy Sandifer's heart, and in the heart of everyone that ever knew him. And for each glass of afternoon sweet tea, each visit together, and for every story you ever told us Ralph, we love you all the more, and you'll never be fully gone.
I first met Ralph at my old haunt, the fishing shop at Breakaway Tackle. Myself and the Navy military police buddies of mine would go there almost every day to make fun of the "English" ownership and act like we were gonna buy something, just not THAT particular day. And truth be told, just to be around the old timers that hung out down there. And Ralph was the darn ringleader of them all-a joker's joker, a prankster's prankster, and one heckuva joke and story teller. And an even better fisherman. Born on October 1, 1923 in South Texas, Ralph joined the Navy at 16 years old just before World War II. He served during World War II and the Korean War, as a Gunner's Mate, and a deep water diver. He gave a full 20 years to the United States Navy. But that wasn't all he gave. During World War II his ship was kamikaze attacked by the Japanese, and sunk. He spent 30 days afloat in the Pacific, watching his shipmates go under one by one, and sharks circle their survivor's group. He never talked about these things. In fact, only once did him and I discuss it. "It's just like a dream now, that's all. Like a dream...like it never even happened. Just a dream..." His medals from his Navy service included the WWII Asiatic-Pacific Medal, United Nations Medal, National Defense, Korean service, China service, Philippine Liberation Medal, and even a good conduct medal. He sailed all over the world, and could remember funny stories from each place. He was from the old school, from a time when social interaction face to face with others was the norm not the exception. He came from before phones and computers came about, and could talk to anyone at anytime, and have them laughing in no time.
Ralph came home retired from the Navy after 20 years in 1961, and began fishing the beach for the first time since childhood. In those days there were only a few other fishermen at all, as Padre Island was a private cattle ranch owned by the Dunn family. There were cows wandering around on the beach chewing on washed-in ship line, and miles and miles of empty deserted shoreline. It was a time that we'll never see again. Just as Ralph Wade was a mentor to Billy Sandifer and taught Billy to fish, Ralph's mentor was Louis Rawalt. Louis and Ralph fished together, and Ralph remembered every detail from those days. One of the most important things to me was to document Ralph's stories of yesteryear, and I hope that I did that to the best of my ability. Those days are gone and past now, and aren't coming back. It was a time of complete freedom and fish as great in size and quantity as our wildest imaginations. Ralph was the best trout fishermen that I ever knew. He could find trout and read the surf like no one ever has. And even better, Ralph wasn't an elitist "lures-only" snob. He'd fish bait with the best of them, and could ALWAYS find the live mullet for his livewell. If lures weren't producing, to live bait he would go. He NEVER spilled the beans on where the fish were biting, and understood how to keep that a secret, unlike SO MANY today who feed their egos with social media. He hated the internet and would always make me smile with his claims that "that Beachbum fella put the beach on the interweb and ruined that beach!!" in reference to the first forum board sensationalizing the National Seashore. He would go down the Island with his wife and a truck camper back when the last paved road was at Bob Hall Pier, then called Nueces County Park. He would stay from Monday to Friday, playing cards with his wife when the fish weren't biting, sometimes fishing at night only. He was never ever able to have children and his wife passed years ago, leaving him alone. I like to think that as a young man I filled those voids in his heart to the best I ever could. I miss him every day. I miss his stories, his memories, and his smile. Ralph passed away on January 29, 2016 at age 92. The beach will never be the same. But each afternoon when the Trade winds begin to blow and the terns and gulls fly, and the sun begins to cast shadows over the dunes and the surf trout swim and the sand grains blow, his spirit and his laugh and his memory will never be truly gone.
Fair winds and following seas sailor, until we meet again on the other side of the bar.
--Captain Colin R. Davis, March 2018