Samuel C. Florman
Kreisler Borg Florman Construction Company
I was born and raised in New York City and have an early memory of a family celebration held at one of Manhattan's more elegant restaurants. I recall the waiter asking my father if he wanted to order a bottle of mineral water with the exotic-sounding name of a European spa. And I recall my father's firm reply: "No thank you, young man. We will all have LaGuardia cocktails." The waiter understood that this reference to our much-beloved mayor meant we wished to be served plain tap water. My father then explained to me that New York City water was the finest, purest beverage one could find anywhere and that it came to us from distant mountains over magnificent aqueducts and through spectacular tunnels carved deep in the earth.
My mother thereupon delivered a lecture on the importance of water to our health and well-being and expressed thanks to providence that many terrible waterborne diseases had recently been conquered, not only because our water came from far away but also because it was filtered and treated with germ-destroying chemicals. After that experience the faucets in our apartment took on for me a fascinating quality they never had before.
A science teacher at school helped nourish my newly awakened interest with a detailed explanation of how the New York City water system was conceived, designed, and built. My father had associated the technological marvel with a popular politician—as did the Romans and many others before and since—and my mother had expressed thanks to providence, surely a benign gesture. But I soon learned that a major part of the credit was due the talented people who had created the marvelous enterprise—the engineers.
I cannot say that this experience, in itself, persuaded me to become an engineer. But I do believe it started me on the way. It prompted me to become an avid sidewalk superintendent, seeking out in our city streets the numerous man-made holes that exposed a fabulous subterranean world of pipes and valves. When, years later, I embarked on my engineering studies, the courses on water supply were among my favorites. The often demanding theoretical work was alleviated by the fun of experimenting with water as it flowed through pipes and channels and poured over weirs. (And the occasional splashing reassured me that engineers are not as totally solemn as they are sometimes said to be.)
Then, as a newly commissioned ensign with the U.S. Navy Seabees, immediately after World War II, I found myself on a small island in the mid-Pacific, assigned to a water supply project. Surrounded by thousands of square miles of salty seas, a supply of fresh water suddenly seemed immensely precious. The elixir we were able to collect from mountain streams, impound behind a small earth-fill dam, then purify and distribute to a military camp reminded me of the water that engineers at home had been able to provide like magic in the midst of large and bustling cities. When work on the island infrastructure was complete and we opened the ceremonial tap, I fleetingly recalled my father's satisfaction in ordering a round of LaGuardia cocktails.
Ultimately, I followed a career in construction engineering and developed a special interest in concrete and steel. Yet each time I see a building rise into the sky, the sight of the plumbing pipes—the final arteries of a marvelous life-sustaining system—evokes a special feeling of wonder and pride.