“There’s a guy here who says he went to Ole Miss,” Mark said.
Mark was a Department of Defense (DoD) civilian employee stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2013. Mark Shafer, retired submarine driver. A burly, bearded, blunt and highly efficient man with the unblinking stare of a wolf, who moved planes, vehicles, equipment and personnel in and out of country by day and told the most hilarious stories of antics on the high seas your stomach muscles could stand around a blazing fire by night, all while savoring a cigar in the cool mountain air of almost 8,000 feet up.
“His name is Tripp,” Mark said.
“Tripp,” I repeated. “Well, of course it would be Tripp,” I thought to myself. “It’s Mississippi. We go in for names like Tripp.”
I found Tripp later and knew he was “Mississippi” before he spoke. Another big man like Mark. Big sideburns. Big hair. A big chest and even bigger legs. Walked all wide-legged, as if he’d just dismounted a horse after a long day’s ride.
And that smile. Jesus. You can’t describe it. Ear-to-ear? No. Doesn’t cut it. It was bigger than that. It was bigger than anything else he possessed. Bigger than his laugh. Bigger than his face even. It leapt out at you like an attacking big cat in one of those nature shows.
And those deep green eyes came at you with the big smile and just held you in place, the cat to its prey. When he did speak, I had to suppress a laugh. Not because he sounded funny, but because he sounded “home.” I had been away from home since joining the FBI in 1997. On occasional visits to Oxford and Holly Springs, I always noticed how strange the voices were to my forgetful ear. The longer vowels, the bouncing syllables, the doubled-up inflections when a single spike of a note would have killed the word and moved on, like they do in the North, where the sense of hurry is ever-present.
I soon saw that Tripp McCullar was a very busy fellow as an Army Green Beret at the Embassy, with duties that kept him hopping from dawn into the night. But Tripp was never in a hurry, and that big smile was never diminished. Watching Tripp in action, I often recalled the admonition of a beloved firearms instructor at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, who said, “Smooth is fast.”
“Let’s say you got a hot date with you in your pickup truck,” the instructor would tell a class of New Agent Trainees as he schooled them on how not to pull a trigger. “You got a cup o’ dip sittin’ on the dashboard. You got a speed bump comin’ up. You go over that speed bump fast, you gonna spill that cup all over your date’s lap. You’re done. So you take it smooth.”
Tripp never spilled the dip. Tripp was smooth.
Well, there was that one time. Tripp and I were the honored guests of a tribal sheikh in Yemen. There we were, sitting cross-legged on the gorgeous carpets in the sheikh’s home as our host served us big round plates of freshly baked flat bread oozing with wild Yemeni honey, the best in the world. As a Green Beret, Tripp had needed to learn more than one foreign language. Before tackling Arabic, he had taken on Turkish, and sometimes he got the two tongues twisted.
“This is great BAL,” he told the sheikh with emphasis, using the Turkish word for “honey” instead of the Arabic one. The trouble was, the way Tripp pronounced it, with his Mississippi drawl, “BAL” came out a lot closer to “BOL,” which is the Arabic word for “urine.” The sheikh and his entourage roared laughing and had to push themselves away from the feast to dry their eyes. When I told Tripp what he had said, his red face looked like the lights on a Christmas tree next to his big green eyes.
“Boy, you’re a long way from Oxford,” I whispered into Tripp’s ear.
Tripp immediately gave me a gift that day when we met in the hall of the Embassy in Sanaa. It was an Ole Miss lanyard, the kind you attach to your Embassy security badge and show to the guards when you enter through the gates. Red and blue with the big “M” and the cursive “Ole Miss” repeated down the strand. I never took it off while on duty at the Embassy. I carried it home with me to Virginia in 2015. I took it back to the Middle East on a tour in Oman later that year, on another one in Saudi Arabia, and then back again to the U.S. I still wear it today. I’ll wear it for as long as I am working anywhere.
Tripp graduated from Ole Miss in 1997. I finished in 1983. I never asked, but it seemed like he had grown up needing to work. He had a job at the Oxford Airport. He had a job as a “house boy” at an Ole Miss sorority, where you got your meals for free. He made money playing gigs in a band in Oxford.
I didn’t need to work. I played the guitar for fun. I served as a “house boy” for fun.
Tripp was a soldier – and a soldier’s soldier at that. He had been places and done things most people could not relate to, including me. I never served. Tripp had that quiet confidence about him, “something conservative and guarded,” as Tom Clancy put it in “Rainbow Six.” I always admired men like that and wished I had been one of them. The guys who walk into a room and seem to have all the answers, even when they don’t. The guys men follow into battle.
Despite the difference in our ages, and the differences in who we were and how we got to where we were, we bonded over two things we had in common: Ole Miss and our shared love of the Arabic language and culture. “Man,” Tripp said to me once, “what are the chances of two dudes from Ole Miss meeting up in Yemen and both speaking Arabic?” I admitted they were small.
But then again, maybe not. The thing is, both Mississippi and Arabia are tribal. In Mississippi, it matters who your mother and father were. You’re not just you. You’re so-and-so’s boy or girl. It matters if you have children. In the Arab world, a man is called “Abu,” which means “father of.” A woman is called “Om,” which means “mother of.” Tripp’s mother died in 2009. He used to tell me about what a beautiful lady she was.
It matters what family you come from. “McCullar? Ohhh. He’s from the Batesville McCullars.”
It matters where you worship. It matters that you grew up saying “sir” and “ma’am,” and that your children have grown up saying “sir” and “ma’am,” too. Old people aren’t “old.” They’re “elders.” There’s a respect which abides in that word, and that cannot be removed.
In Yemen, in Arabia, those things matter, too.
Tripp turned me on to a movie made in the early 2000s called “A New Day in Old Sanaa.” We watched it one night at the Embassy. It’s a love story about a well-off boy from the Old City of Sanaa, which is said to have been built by Noah’s grandson and parts of which pre-date Moses. He sees a peasant girl dancing alone in a dimly-lit street one night from his window high above the gingerbread facades. The boy is engaged to a girl from his social class, a beautiful and proper girl with a dowry and a name. He wants to leave it all and run away with the dancer, and he promises the dancer he will come for her, but in the end he conforms and honors family and tradition, the unspoken, unseen things he can’t escape.
As I watched the movie, I thought of Faulkner’s line from “Light in August,” where Byron Bunch says, “A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don’t try to hold him that he can’t escape from.”
Tripp and I talked for hours around fires, playing Led Zeppelin tunes on beat-up old acoustic guitars, and remembering places that were part of our Oxford pasts: The Hoka Café, The Gin, Taylor Grocery, and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Even the Oxford Airport where Tripp worked was also a fixation of mine, and one of my earliest memories.
My grandfather, J.D. Williams, was in his last years as Chancellor at Ole Miss when I was just a few years old in the 1960s. I remember visits to “J.D. and Nana” (his wife, Ruth Williams) at the old Chancellor’s House just off Sorority Row. I loved getting to stay up at night in my bedroom at the Chancellor’s House and watch the Airport beacon slice the big black sky in wide, sweeping beams of faded light, circling back on itself, repeating and dying again. I used to look at that beacon and imagine all the far-off places J.D. had been. J.D. was always traveling. Like Bilbo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings,” he was always off on another adventure. It was from him that I got my wanderlust, my desire for the open road that led to Germany, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen, and, like the Airport beacon circling back on itself, to Ole Miss and Tripp McCullar.
Tripp married late, and, of course, when he did marry, he married a girl from a foreign land, a shockingly beautiful girl he met while on tour in another one of the ancient world’s inscrutable capitals, a place where history is measured in millennia, and everything else is just details.
I’ll never forget watching Tripp’s massive frame bolting through a heavy Embassy door and into the Yemeni night. He had just received word that his wife was going into labor. She delivered twins. A couple of years later, Tripp posted his daughter’s picture on Facebook, and someone who knew his mother commented on how the girl looked just like her, especially the swept-back mane of hair. He agreed.
Tripp is now with the National Security Council at the White House.
“Om Tripp” is smiling down, brother.
Paul Crutcher is a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI living and working in Virginia. He was in Yemen from 2013 – 2015.