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Cost of Freedom Has New Image After Kuwait

When the Iraqi soldier stuck the machine gun under his chin, when his terrified wife wept, envisioning the horror of impending death or rape, when they hid together and discussed drowning their three beloved dogs out of fear that their barking might reveal their whereabouts to the soldiers, Jim Calvin believed that somehow they would get out of Kuwait alive.

When the State Department mistakenly told his frantic son back in Texas that Jim and Phyllis Calvin had been taken hostage to Baghdad, when the radiator light illuminated in the Chevrolet as he and his wife crossed the desert in 135-degree heat toward Saudi Arabia and freedom, Jim Calvin believed that somehow he would return to America and resume a normal life.

And now, as he sits safely inside a hotel room in Rapid City, S.D., in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore, watching the television as hundreds of American hostages descend the steps from airplanes, embrace their loved ones, shake hands warmly with government officials, Calvin’s eyes cannot help but mist.

“I still choke up at the sight of it,” the 49-year-old coach of the Continental Basketball Assn.'s Rapid City Thrillers said Tuesday. “I’m an emotional guy. I cry during ‘Bambi.’ ”

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Yet, it is more than the memory of being one of the first Americans to flee Kuwait after the Aug. 2 invasion by Iraq that brings tears to the eyes of Jim Calvin, who was coaching Kuwait’s national team on the day Saddam Hussein’s tanks rumbled beneath his window. It is more than the ordeal of dodging mortar shells, of observing executions and burning and looting, of stepping across rotting corpses and comforting a wife stricken with understandable hysteria that tugs at Calvin’s heart strings as his fellow Americans return home.

He just wonders if any of them had to do what he did--sign a promissory note for nearly $5,000 to the U.S. government for the transportation that carried him and his wife back to America.

He just wonders if any of them have had their 10-year passport replaced by a visa good for six months that will not be renewed unless the money is paid back.

He just wonders if any of them have been penalized for making a daring escape after being caught in the middle of a war.

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“I’d like to take a little poll,” Calvin said, “just to find out how many people getting off these planes had to sign promissory notes just to be permitted to return to the United States?”

This was his reward for being the first person to notify the American Embassy in Kuwait that the invasion had even taken place. This was his reward for risking life and limb on a ninth-floor rooftop to report Iraqi troop and tank placement to U.S. military advisers as often as four times hourly. This was his reward for correcting misinformation that was being communicated by diplomats, military personnel and broadcast correspondents.

All Jim Calvin wanted to do was coach. For 14 years, he coached high school basketball in Terre Haute, Ind. Later, he was the top assistant at Murray State in Kentucky and the University of Arkansas Little Rock. He was looking for a new career challenge, wanted “to touch all the bases.” A team in Greece needed a coach, and he was interested.

Then a friend, Gene Smithson, who once coached Wichita State, told him he had just turned down an offer to coach the national team of Kuwait.

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“Where the hell is Kuwait?” Calvin asked.

“I don’t know, but they don’t have any drinking over there, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to go,” Smithson joked.

Turned out the Kuwaitis had even placed an ad for a coach in an NCAA coaches’ magazine. So, on May 28, 1989, Calvin sent them a resume. Six days later, they called to offer him the job, sight unseen. Calvin, though, wanted to see Kuwait. He said there was no way he would fax an acceptance of a job in a country that he had never even heard of a few days before.

He flew to Kuwait City. “It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of grass, but otherwise it’s nice. Everything was first class until I saw where the national coaches were housed. It looked like something out of bombed-out Beirut. They said they were remodeling the old headquarters. I said: ‘Don’t play games with me. If this is where we’ll be livin’, my wife and I ain’t comin’.’ ”

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Fifty-seven days at a Hyatt Regency later, the new place was his. Marble floors, marble walls, the works. Three baths. Huge kitchen. A dining room 40 feet long. Picture window overlooking the desert. Calvin was happy with Kuwait, and Kuwait was happy with him, because the team won 38 games, lost only eight and won two tournament gold medals, including the Sudan championships at Baghdad.

Invited back, Calvin accepted. He also had been offered a job as Egypt’s Olympic coach, and another in the Greek pro league, but the salaries were low. One more year in Kuwait, Calvin told himself, and then on to something new.

Daylight breaks at 4 a.m. in Kuwait, and Calvin was already up and out, walking the dogs. When he got back, around 5:15, his assistant coach, Abdul Rahman, a Kuwaiti, telephoned to say: “We’ve been invaded by Iraq.”

“What?” Calvin asked.

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“They’ve bombed the airport and the television communications,” Rahman said.

Calvin hung up and went out onto his balcony. “It was the biggest military parade you ever saw,” he said. “Soldiers. Tanks. I immediately called the American Embassy. They still weren’t even aware of it. They were about 16 or 17 miles away from where we were staying. We were on the seventh floor, and I ran up to the rooftop, the ninth floor, and started counting troops and tanks to report back to the embassy. They set up five telephone-security lines just to take my information.

“I saw them circle an Army base and open fire. I saw them shooting civilians on the streets, saw people slam on the brakes, get out and try to run and be shot dead. I saw them run over cars with tanks, with people still in the cars. With each passing hour, there were corpses littering the streets outside our apartment, decaying and bloating in the heat.

“I went down to the store, because we didn’t have anything to eat. An Iraqi soldier presses a machine gun under my chin and says, ‘Where are you from?’

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“ ‘I’m from the United States.’

“ ‘The United States?’ he says. ‘We have no problem with the United States. Our problem is with Kuwait.’ So he lets me go.”

The news from the street and the radio was gruesome. Westerners were now being robbed or taken prisoner. Stores were looted. British airline stewardesses were reportedly dragged from the airport and raped. Families were forced to evacuate their homes, and their possessions were stolen or burned. Anyone who objected was shot on the spot. This is what Jim and Phyllis Calvin heard or saw.

They got through to their son, Kelly, in San Antonio. Kelly heard artillery fire in the background. Then the line went dead. State Department officials told Kelly that his parents had been taken hostage, then later that they were resting comfortably at an Army base. Neither story was true. Kelly lost 18 pounds in seven days, worrying. The third time, officials simply called his parents “MIAs"--missing in action.

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Iraqi troops mortar-shelled and machine-gunned the rooftop, less than 60 seconds from the last time Calvin ventured up there. He and Phyllis, his wife of 29 years, took cover in storage areas. Their poodles--Flair, Fleur and Flame--the dogs Jim lovingly called, “F Troop,” cowered nearby. Jim’s mind was occupied by the most mortifying, unthinkable thoughts.

“They’re going to rape my wife. They’re going to shoot me because I’ll fight them if they lay a hand on her,” he said. “And we’re both going to be casualties of war because the beautiful dogs we’ve had for eight years aren’t going to be able to stay quiet. That’s when we thought about drowning them. But we just couldn’t do it.

“My wife is crying a solid 24 hours a day, five days running. We’re sitting there waiting for the Iraqi soldiers to find us, any minute. And suddenly George Bush is on the radio, and a journalist asks: ‘Mr. President, how do you get rid of a puppet regime when something like this happens?’ And President Bush says: ‘Watch and learn.’ I’ll never forget that. ‘Watch and learn.’

“I told my wife, ‘Honey, we’ve got 10 minutes to get out of here. Time to get out of Dodge.’

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“We knew the U.S. was preparing to respond. We packed one bag and three poodles into the Chevrolet and took off. Somebody told us there were 30,000 Iraqi troops at the border, then 100,000. We’re driving through dead bodies. We weaved through a street so tight that the sides of the car scraped the walls. If we’d gotten stuck, we’d have had to kick out the windshield to get out.

“Now we’re out toward the desert. It’s 135 degrees. Hundreds of cars are abandoned and blown up. We see arms sticking out the windows. Soldiers are trying to flag us down. We ignore them. I push my wife’s head down onto the seat. I don’t want them to see her blonde hair. She lies prone with the dogs for three hours and 45 minutes.

“They stopped cars. We were third in a line with five cars in it, and I can see they were robbing the first car. I bolted from the lane and they hollered at us, but they didn’t shoot. For 120 miles, every 50 yards there’s a tank with a crew sitting next to it, taking the shade. We’re walking on eggs out there. We drive 80 m.p.h. right into the worst sandstorm you ever saw. The radiator light goes on in the Chevy. Every nightmare imaginable, you name it.”

When they reached the Saudi border, Jim and Phyllis stepped out and kissed the hood of the Chevy.

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Hours later, an American consulate officer told them they would have to drive 4 1/2 hours more to pick up proper identity papers. They did so, fearing all the while that Saudi troops had taken sides with Iraq’s. They arrived safely, with only a $50 traveler’s check, two U.S. dollar bills and a Saudi coin the consul had given them in case they needed to phone him. The Calvins were denied lodging and money for meals. The consul insisted they sign a promissory note for $200, covering expenses.

“We’re the first Americans out of Kuwait,” Calvin said. “I’ve seen every movie about the last plane out of Saigon, about the Americans leaving El Salvador. I don’t remember anybody signing promissory notes for expenses.”

Then came another note for $4,880 for two plane tickets back to America. The Calvins’ passport remained behind. So did all the money he earned coaching, thousands of dollars, all in a bank in Baghdad, all gone for good.

An attorney from Little Rock is working on Calvin’s behalf. So is Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas.

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A friend arranged an offer for Calvin to become coach of the CBA club in Rapid City, where his players include former collegiate stars Fennis Dembo of Wyoming, Keith Smart of Indiana and Stevie Thompson of Syracuse. Abdul Rahman also called. If Jim Calvin would like $4,000 a month, a car and a place near the beach, he is welcome to come be the new national coach of Qatar.

“It’s not the greatest offer ever,” Calvin said, “but when you got $52 to your name in the world, hey, it don’t sound half bad.”

He’s thinking about it.


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