Master and Commander of Sunhaven Drive

Growing up with Bill McRaven


My parents were among the first families to build a house on Sunhaven Drive in San Antonio’s Windcrest subdivision in 1968. The first kid I met on Sunhaven was Billy McRaven, who lived three houses north on our side of the street. He was a couple of years older than most of us.

Most of the kids on the block were military brats whose parents worked at Randolph Air Force Base a few miles away. Windcrest had become a military retirement community on San Antonio’s northeast side. The oldest of the retirees were World War II vets who bought houses near the golf course at the center of the subdivision. Bill’s dad was a more established senior officer, and most of the rest of the kids were sons and daughters of captains and majors.

We were all boys who aspired to reach manhood early, and we watched UT grad Walter Cronkite every evening and saw all of the film clips from Vietnam. Our parents were all involved in the war, directly or indirectly. My dad was responsible for writing the medal commendations for Air Force personnel who distinguished themselves in action in Vietnam.

In the fall, winter, spring, and summer of 1968-69, Bill McRaven, your new chancellor, was the master and commander of Sunhaven Drive. Most of you know of Bill’s expertise as the commander of U.S. Navy Special Operations, and many have undoubtedly seen the YouTube video of his wildly popular 2014 UT commencement address, but I am here to tell you that Bill was an officer and a gentleman at 13, well before he showed up for SEAL training.

Back then, Bill’s soldiers numbered anywhere from 10-25, depending on the time of day or day of the week. We numbered eight-10 for after school football games in the front or backyards of homes where young mothers were too busy with younger children to care much about the damage we did to lawns.

Bill was several inches taller than most of us, and played quarterback and coached most of the time. He would tell us where to go, outline the blocking scheme, and decide who would go over the fence to get the ball next door and distract the scary dog on the other side. He could throw the ball farther, insisting that we had to run faster to catch up to it.

As military brats we were really good at playing war. Indeed, playing war may have also been our way of dealing with the tensions and anxieties that confront all families facing war. After watching Cronkite show clips of tunnel systems, we decided to build tunnels of our own. Our Ho Chi Minh trail was in the as-yet-developed fields surrounding Sunhaven Drive. In the early summer, sunflower plants would grow so tall that our tunnel-building operations were out of sight of our natural enemies: the neighborhood’s developer, Mr. Fentress and his army of big-bearded backhoe operators.

We learned to work quickly and work hard. Bill worked with us, not above us, and we all wanted to please him. A great commander does what he expects his soldiers to do. We learned what Central Texas caliche was and we learned that picks and all sorts of shovels, determination, and calluses were required to build adequate defensive positions. We listened to Zager & Evans’ No. 1 hit “In the Year 2525” over and over again, running home for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Kool-Aid for lunch, only returning to our positions in the evening when the temperature began to dip below 95.

But progress eventually caught up with us and the backhoes would fill in our forts quicker than Mr. Fentress could scare us away. We then resorted to developing our own special operations activities based on very low intelligence. After dark, we would stage stealthy raids on the golf course, searching water hazards and hedges for lost golf balls, evading detection with coordinated movements, darting from fairways to shrubs.

In the wake of those big July thunderstorms we would grab the unused and folded packing boxes in our garages and body-surf the rising culvert water until the flash flood subsided.

My fellow fifth- and sixth-graders remember Bill and looked up to him, but his leadership of our antics changed once he got into middle school. Something happened, and Bill quickly evolved into a grown-up.

The first sign of this was when he began walking girls home and actually talking to them. The kids on Sunhaven would race to the bike stand immediately after school as though some benevolent force was waving a checkered flag. We would hop onto our coveted banana-seat bikes and streak home (about a mile). I remember when Bill began walking home because I too had a crush—my first—on Lisa Huffaker, the fifth-grade daughter of a furniture storeowner who lived between my house and Bill’s.

But, like most 11-year-old boys, I thought that winning the race home would somehow win Lisa’s attention. At that time, I also thought that showing attention to a girl meant pushing her on her shoulder. But Bill, the master and commander, knew that actually walking and talking to a girl might be the better way to form a friendship with the object of his affection.

From that point forward, Bill had clearly outgrown us. Just as the people of Koningsberg, Germany would set their watches at 6 p.m. when the philosopher Immanuel Kant began his walk every evening, we would set our internal clocks to 5 p.m., when Bill began his daily run. He was trim, fit, and buff, a possessor of six-pack abs before anybody really cared about them.

Sometimes he would stop by the Odles’ carport and play basketball with us after his run, but we didn’t see much of him after he started at Theodore Roosevelt High School and entered the ROTC program. He was clearly driven, but we didn’t really know what that meant. He was well organized and meticulous—he rose early, and went from school to work to lifting weights to running—and, some would say, anal. He was always very busy, though he possessed a cheerful toughness that none of us quite understood. The rest of the kids had difficultly understanding that what Bill was doing was growing up.

He did, however, completely blow at basketball, the only thing I had over him.*

But what I understand now is that he first demonstrated his leadership qualities on the battlefields adjacent to Sunhaven Drive. As he indicated in his commencement address, SEAL training taught him a lot. But he was our master and commander for one fleeting year, well before he became the master and commander of the covert American war on terror.

He taught us the meaning of hard work, sound tactical planning and organization, and that talking to girls was a better way to get to know them than hitting them on their shoulders.

Whether or not he ordered us to take unlawful actions will remain top-secret, eyes only for the NSA and Bill’s frogmen on Sunhaven Drive.

Paul Horton, MS ’80, MA ’85, is a history teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

*Editor’s note: McRaven confirmed the details of this account, with one exception. “I did not ‘blow’ at basketball. In fact, modestly speaking, I was pretty damn good.”


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