By Michael E. Miller
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Today, while the wind is blowing, Captain Ed stays ashore to prepare for a couple of guests. Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau and the head of the Cousteau Society, is coming down for a Friday night fund raiser at the Cheeca Lodge in Key Largo. And John Sawhill, president of The Nature Conservancy, one of the nation's largest conservation-oriented land trusts, arrives Saturday morning for a boat tour. In between sewing and other office chores, Davidson is on the phone, networking. His range of contacts is legendary. Throughout his years of environmental activism, Davidson has won plenty of powerful enemies. But he's gathered around him a host of friends, too.
Bob Baker, southeast regional director of the National Park Service, praises Davidson for his unusual ability to successfully combine running a business with educating the public. Where other concessionaires exist to make money through sweet, monopolistic arrangements with parks, Davidson has an "almost theological" reverence for the natural resource in which he operates his boat tours, Baker says. "He's got guts as well as vision," adds J. Allison DeFoor II, former Republican candidate for the office of Florida lieutenant governor and a past president of the Florida Keys Land Trust. "It's real easy in the conservation area to make a lot of noise and not have much impact, and then act smug about it. Ed's not like that. He's someone who has made a real difference." Democratic Senator Bob Graham, the former governor of Florida, also counts himself a fan. "Ed is living proof that knowledge plus perseverance equals results," Graham says. "He personifies environmentalism in Florida. He combines knowledge of marine science and knowledge of the Keys with a passion for preservation."
Born and reared in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, Davidson was a bookish, introverted national merit scholar who never dated in high school, and passed up a full scholarship to Cornell in favor of a special engineering program in the U.S. Navy. After entering the service, he spent five years at the elite science and engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. There he studied physics for two and a half years before switching to humanities, graduating with bachelor of science degrees in psychology and philosophy. He pursued graduate work in both those subjects, writing a thesis on Eastern religions, and also attended advanced military engineering and intelligence schools.
Davidson first came to the Keys in 1967, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, having just returned from harrowing back-to-back tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was one of only several dozen fighter pilots to survive more than 200 combat missions. Davidson had gone to Southeast Asia idealistic about the war but came considerably less so. "Once we were there, most people realized how absurd it was," he recalls. "But we had all this male bonding going on - that sort of thing. And we tried to see it through." Besides flying planes off the decks of aircraft carriers at night in the middle of monsoons, Davidson was responsible for writing exaggerated, heroic narratives to accompany the presentation of medals to military higher-ups. And in his spare time, he began writing something else, a nonfiction manuscript he called Letters from Armageddon, which eventually grew to 400 pages. The book, by turns witty, philosophical, and ribald, chronicled the irresponsibility, incompetence, and "wholesale betrayal of the national trust" by various senior military officers in the Navy air command.
Returning to the United States, Davidson became a flight instructor at the Navy's Top Gun school in Key West. He says he was startled to find that pilots were being taught dogfighting techniques straight out of World War II. Few of his fellow instructors had any real experience. "They were living in fairyland," Davidson says. "Everything they were teaching was antiquated and would prove fatal in the first 48 hours of combat. We really got into it. I had a mustache and sideburns, and they thought I was some California hippie who had found a military ID card in the street. As my perspective became more and more disenchanted, I became more and more vocal." Davidson began making some serious enemies in Key West. And about that time, by a complicated series of events, a copy of Letters from Armageddon was intercepted by an army general. Instead of inspiring an investigation of the officers Davidson had criticized, the book nearly bought Davidson a court marshal. At the same time, he says, his commanding officers in Key West were loading him up with night flights in worn-out airplanes - assignments Davidson concluded were meant to kill him.
Davidson got out in 1970, resigning his lieutenant's commission and penning a scathing letter to then-Secretary of the Navy John Chafee. But despite his disillusionment with the military, Davidson has never lost his passion for high-performance airplanes, and martial jargon frequently colors his speech. It was the dangerous lack of creativity among top brass that soured him on the Navy, not the military life itself, Davidson says. "If the President called me tomorrow and offered me Interior or Defense, I'd have a real tough time deciding," he declares, and he currently holds the rank of lieutenant in the Navy Reserve. In Florida, as in Vietnam, Davidson says he is trying not to betray the sacrifices made by his fellow airmen in the war. He says, "A lot of what I'm doing I do because I owe it to all the dead people I used to know."