As night fell on Veterans Day, his name shone along with all the other backlit names ringing the memorial pool that marks the footprint of the World Trade Center’s fallen South Tower.
“Scott Matthew Davidson”
Surrounding his name are those of five fellow members of Ladder 118 who died with him. The surviving members of the company remember Davidson as being at at once golden-hearted and brutally honest, saying whatever was on his mind.
“Scotty was able to insult you, but made you feel good about it,” says Firefighter John Sorrentino, now retired.
And nobody could be more fearlessly funny, as Davidson demonstrated at the end of a scheduled 7 to 8 p.m. drill in the firehouse overseen by a visiting deputy chief whom Sorrentino notes “wasn’t the most liked chief on the job.” Davidson began by announcing the time.
“Chief, 8 o’clock, time for you to go,” Davidson told him.
Davidson then went up and put his arm around him.
“Chief, I don’t know why nobody likes you,” Davidson said. “I think you’re a nice guy.”
Davidson had joined the fire department around the time his son, Pete, was born, and the future Saturday Night Live star was a regular presence in a firehouse where laughter was a constant sound.
“He was around us a lot when his dad was alive,” Sorrentino recalls. “He was always in and out of the firehouse.”
Sorrentino noted that Pete was clearly his father’s son.
“He was a funny kid,” Sorrentino says.
Photos show father and son in shared bliss, with Pete wearing his dad’s helmet in one, his dad’s turnout coat in another. He looks as totally happy as he must have been completely shattered at age 7, when his father was killed wearing that very same gear.
Scott was also known for his patriotism and was said by one friend to love all things American. Ladder 118’s shared sentiment was reflected by a bumper sticker bearing an American flag on the company’s rig as it rolled out of its firehouse in Brooklyn Heights on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“THESE COLORS ARE ONLY WHIPPED BY A BREEZE,” it read.
A 20-year-old who had been printing Bibles in the Watchtower complex on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge snapped a photo of Ladder 118 crossing over, looking impossibly brave and small in the face of the burning World Trade Center up ahead. The rig pulled up to the base of the North Tower and all six hurried to see what they could do.
All six were killed, along with 337 other members of the FDNY, 23 members of the NYPD, 37 members of the Port Authority police, eight emergency medical technicians, and more than 2,500 civilians. Surviving firefighters raised an American flag over the burning ruins and during the days afterward the Stars and Stripes appeared everywhere.
The spirit of the item was most perfectly expressed at a gathering in Madison Square Garden for the families of the fallen firefighters, when the arena filled with a recording of another ill-fated member of Ladder 118, golden-voiced Firefighter Vernon Cherry singing the national anthem. We all seemed to love all things American, and for a brief time the country was united as maybe never before.
Davidson’s body was recovered in November, right around Pete’s 8th birthday. Then came the holidays. Scott Davidson had always loved Christmas so much he was nicknamed Mr. Christmas and festooned his car with lights connected to the battery. He now was searingly absent this and every Christmas to come. We can only imagine the effect all this had on the boy.
But it certainly made him no less like his dad.
“It’s amazing he grew up to have so many of his father’s qualities,” Sorrentino says. “He’s funny, fast, sharp. He’s brutally honest. He says what’s on his mind.”
And there was a shared something else.
“They both got a heart of gold,” Sorrentino says. “Both of them.”
The resemblance became even more manifest as the son emerged from tragic loss to make a living with much the same kind of humor that his father brought to the firehouse and was no doubt recounted in tales young Pete must have heard surviving firefighters trade as they tried to lighten their own grief in the days after 9/11.
In 2015, 21-year-old Pete Davidson was the youngest cast member on Saturday Night Live. He turned serious as we came to another anniversary of 9/11. He addressed his fallen father:
“Can’t believe it’s been 14 years. Over 2/3 of my life without you. It feels like it was just yesterday. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think of you. You’re my hero. Can’t wait to see you again someday RIP dad 1/4/68-9/11/01 #neverforget.”
Pete had his father’s FDNY badge number, 8418, tattooed on his left arm. Pete’s brief courtship of and engagement to singer Ariana Grande was long enough for her to also get an 8418 tattoo. He gave her a necklace bearing the same numbers, as if to say his father would have most definitely approved.
But the brutally honest father might have had some things to say after his son made fun on Saturday Night Live of the appearance of retired Navy SEAL Lt. Cmdr. Dan Crenshaw, who had lost an eye to an IED in Afghanistan on his third combat deployment, been completely blind for a time, then regained his sight and deployed twice more before deciding to run for Congress.
“You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hitman in a porno movie,” Pete said.
The more telling moment was the next, when Pete said, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever.”
But it was not just war, it was a war that had begun with the murder of Pete’s father and nearly 3,000 others in downtown Manhattan and had extended through most of Pete’s life, becoming our longest conflict, in which more than 2 million Americans have served and yet just drags on and on and on, as most of us have all but forgotten there is any war at all. New York’s first responders certainly remember, as do the military. An Army special-forces operator who had deployed more than a dozen times was wearing an FDNY patch on his body armor when he was killed in 2015, and an FDNY captain now wears his baseball cap.
Maybe the 24-year-old son of a fallen firefighter who had tried to answer horror with humor can be forgiven if he takes it too far and tries to play off that seemingly endless war as if it were just a whatever.
“Now, you be that young and be famous and see how you do,” Sorrentino says.
Pete offered his apology on the show, correctly calling Crenshaw a war hero. Crenshaw was there to accept it and correctly called Pete’s father a hero.
“So, are we good?” Pete asked.
“We’re good,” Crenshaw said.
Crenshaw suggested one lesson is that not only can the left and the right agree on something, but that Americans can forgive each other. He said this had particular meaning as we came to Veterans Day and suggested what we should say to those who have served.
“Tell a veteran, ‘Never forget,’” he said. “When you say ‘never forget’ to a veteran, you are implying that, as an American, you are in it with them.”
Those are the very words Pete Davidson put at the end of his post about his father on the 14th anniversary of 9/11. Pete and Crenshaw shook hands. And for just a moment anyway, it felt like that brief time of unity after the towers fell fell 17 long years of war ago.
“Never forget,” Crenshaw said.
‘Never forget,” Pete Davidson said.
And if you listened as you stood by the south memorial pool beside the name “SCOTT MATTHEW DAVIDSON” at the end of Veterans Day, you could almost hear his father say the same in the gathering darkness.
Not that anybody heard him as the gathering rush-hour crowd hurried from work to home, passing from the memorial plaza to a shopping mall where the holiday garlands are already up, in advance of another Christmas without Mr. Christmas.