The day before, James Calvin, the American head coach of the Kuwait national basketball team, had been shot at by mortar and machine guns. The captain of his team already was dead. And now Calvin was speeding past Iraqi soldiers who tried to flag him down and through the Kuwaiti desert in a 1986 Chevrolet Caprice with a leak in its radiator, with his wife, Phyllis, down on the floorboard "so they wouldn't see her blond hair."
Halfway between Kuwait City, where the Calvins had been when the Iraq invasion began, and Salmi, Saudi Arabia, to which they were fleeing last week, they encountered a roadblock. It was 135 degrees. There was a driving sandstorm in the desert. Phyllis was still on the floorboard. And when the soldiers came to the passenger side of the car, Calvin hit the gas, expecting at any moment to see the red warning light from the radiator go on.
Three hours and 45 minutes later, the car was still running and the Calvins had reached the border. James and Phyllis Calvin got out of the car and kissed the hood of the Chevy.
Calvin is one of at least two American coaches with breathtaking escapes from Kuwait. Steve Betts, the Kuwaiti national swim team coach, reached the Saudi border Monday.
International strife had not been in Calvin's job description when he took the job 1 1/2 years ago. As assistant head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock, he had helped guide the Trojans to three NCAA tournament berths in four years.
And when he and his Kuwaiti assistant coach, Abdul Rahman Hussain, found out about the buildup of Saddam Hussein's troops at the Kuwaiti border last Monday, Hussain joked that it was because Calvin's Kuwaiti team had thrashed the Iraqi squad at the aptly named Saddam Championships in front of 12,000 people -- including the Iraqi dictator himself -- in Baghdad a month earlier.
But the joking ended soon after. Before he left, he learned that his team captain had been killed and two other players were missing. "I saw death right before my eyes," said Calvin, 50, yesterday from the safety of a Holiday Inn in San Antonio, where the Calvins are regrouping while he tries to find a job.
The Calvins' apartment building was on the main road between Iraq and Kuwait City. Soon after he found out about the military buildup, Calvin walked out on the balcony of his apartment and witnessed "the dadgonedest military parade I ever saw. Trucks. Tanks. Cars. Soldiers. Cannons. Machine guns. Missiles. It was unbelievable."
Thinking quickly, Calvin called the U.S. Embassy, which was not aware of what was going on. "I gave them the location of the troops," said Calvin. "We lived 500 yards from the army base."
For the next few hours, Calvin shuffled between the rooftop of the apartment building and the telephone downstairs in the seventh-floor apartment, where he would relay information to the embassy.
But it wasn't long before he was spotted. Luckily, he was in the apartment when a mortar shell hit the roof, shattering every window in the building. That was followed by machine gun fire.
That night, with all the lights in the house off, Calvin peered out the window, and saw more horror. Five cars trying to leave the city in a period of 20 minutes were stopped by Iraqi soldiers. "I could hear machine gun fire, and then no one would get out of the car."
"All hell broke loose," said Calvin. "We started worrying that we would be another casualty of war. We didn't want to be killed, but we realized it could happen. We saw soldiers going into people's homes and stealing and raping the women, American women, German women. They started to get closer to our building. Now, my wife is very good-looking, and if they had tried to rape her, they would have had to kill me first."
When they heard President Bush's "watch and learn" warning on radio, "we knew it was time to get out of Dodge."
Instead of following Iraq's orders to evacuate via Baghdad -- "I felt like that was like signing our death papers" -- Calvin phoned the Saudi Arabian embassy, which told him if the Calvins could make it to the Salmi border, they would be permitted to enter the country even though they didn't have the proper documents.
So the Calvins loaded the Caprice with two bags of belongings and their three dogs and made for the border.
But even when they made it to Salmi, eluding the soldiers and tanks and guns, the adventure wasn't over. "We got great treatment from everybody -- the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, everybody -- except the United States government."
The Calvins got a "slap on the face" when the United States told them it wouldn't pay for their flight home or even a good meal -- they hadn't eaten in two days. "We had to sign a promissory note to the Saudis."
They finally got the money for a plane ticket from Calvin's sister in the States. But reality is starting to set in. The Holiday Inn's five-night free room is about to run out, as is a rental car's five-day free use. Today, the Calvins are flying to Chicago to tape a segment on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," but after that they have to move into their son, Kelly's, one-bedroom apartment.
The job-hunting has not gone well.
"I don't know which way to go now," Calvin said. "I don't have a job. I don't have a car. I can't even afford the taxi fare to get around. And it's going to be time to eat again soon."