Old soldier who loved the water gets final call at the Dead Eye

March 10, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Captain Ralph Ervan Ford Sr. owned more sunken boats and barges than anyone in Baltimore, a string of deep-sixed derelicts on the harbor bottom from Curtis Bay to Canton.

Boats that might sink he brought ashore, and the ones that refused to sink he docked in the shadow of the Hanover Street Bridge where they bobbed yesterday on green water his mourners stared at to remember a man who loved boats, any boat, all boats.

Among his prizes were a tugboat named for himself, leaky wooden buckets that sat on blocks for years, and an auctioned city yacht named for William Donald Schaefer.

"No matter where he went he was always coming back to this waterfront," said Rose Mary Ford, after they buried her father. "FromCurtis Creek to Pratt Street to Boston Street and then down to this marina, he was never leaving sight of the water. He saw water every day he lived."

A peculiar legacy for the son of an Ohio farmer.

Belligerent, intelligent, crude, crafty and proud, Ralph Ford came to Baltimore during the Great Depression to join the Coast Guard and found himself in the Army when the United States entered World War II.

He told tales of knife fights with Japanese who captured him on Guadalcanal; of killing enemies and watching buddies die; and of being on the deck of the USS Missouri -- a GI decked out in a naval officer's uniform for the sake of a photo -- when Japan surrendered. Those experiences earned him a Purple Heart and a military burial yesterday morning at the Crownsville Veterans Cemetery.

And his warm, crusty heart entitled him to a wake crowded with friends. Whether they met him last week or 30 years ago, they repeated stories Captain Ford told from his stool under the head of a caribou in the Dead Eye Saloon in South Baltimore.

Yesterday the stool was draped in black crepe with a huge basket of red carnations on the seat.

Captain Ford died on the waterfront early last Monday morning after cursing that "last call" had come early at the Dead Eye and retiring to the shipping container he called home. He had lived in the 20-by-8-foot steel box at the Baltimore Yacht Basin marina for the last 10 years.

He was 70, told everyone he was 80, played and sang Hank Williams songs whether you wanted to hear one or not, and chased women to the end.

"I was his last girlfriend," said a gray-haired woman named Betty Lynn, "but I think I was on his lower list."

When David Ridge met Captain Ford he found a second father.

"I met him down on Boston Street about 20 years ago; we were trying to raise one of his tugs that sank," said Mr. Ridge, who, in the loose ranks of harbor titles, prided himself as Captain Ford's first mate. "We got that tug up, but it's sunk down at Curtis Creek right now."

Even the old captain's namesake found its way to the mud.

"When you're driving east on 695 going over Curtis Bay look to your right and you'll see a large tugboat with its bow sticking out of the water," said Dan Davis, the marina owner. "That's the R.E. Ford Sr."

Captain Ford owned boat yards on several Pratt Street piers back in the 1950s. When Baltimore began to groom itself for tourists in the early 1970s, Captain Ford was chased over to Boston Street, where he lived in a trailer until fire destroyed that boatyard. He moved to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco near Hanover Street in the early 1980s.

"Finished with engines" after years of driving pilings, pushing barges and ferrying supplies to ships on anchor, Captain Ford spent the last years of his life collecting boats, playing guitar, handling boat lines for free beer, and enjoying the status of being Ralph Ford.

"He was completely different from anyone, one hell of a man," said Ralph E. Ford Jr. yesterday, raising a Budweiser to his father's memory and looking out at one of the last boats the old man bought. "He was Ralph Ford -- just Ralph Ford, that's the way he lived, and he lived his whole life like that. When you met him, you met him, you didn't meet anyone else."

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