SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- He's dined with presidents, chatted with generals and told his story to Congress. But the man he'd like to catch up with is a taxi driver who gave him his freedom.
Michael Saba, 71, works in Sioux Falls today as an executive for Sanford Children's World Clinics. Sunday night, he'll be watching the Academy Awards to see if "Argo" wins for best movie of 2012.
"Argo" is the historical retelling of an escape of U.S. Embassy workers from Iran in 1980.
Saba wasn't in that group. But 10 years later it was his turn. In August 1990, he was among the Americans that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein snatched as hostages at the start of the crisis leading up to the Gulf War.
"We were called Saddam's guests," Saba says.
On Aug. 2 that summer, Iraq invaded Kuwait, a tiny Middle East neighbor rich in oil wells. President George H.W. Bush responded by ordering U.S. forces to prepare for war to liberate Kuwait.
Saba was among about 500 Americans in Iraq at the time, he estimates. Perhaps half of them were Iraqi Americans who blended in with the chaos. Saba, who grew up in North Dakota, was among the 250 who didn't blend in. They were rounded up, kept under guard in a hotel and left to contemplate the role they might play on the world stage.
"Argo" captured this tension perfectly, Saba said. In the movie, Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA worker who poses as a Canadian film director to help six Americans get out of Iraq. Mendez is daring and resourceful, but most of all coolheaded, as he unifies the group and stares down a crisis at the Baghdad airport.
Just watching the movie made Saba nervous.
"You're beyond nervous," he says. Being detained makes "you feel like you're being charged by a raging bull and wondering if the bull is going to get you. You constantly had that kind of feeling."
Such is modern war in an age of mobility for citizens moving around the globe to do business.
"It's inevitable civilians are going to get caught up in it," says history professor Kurt Kemper at Dakota State University. Since the 1600s, international conflict has become steadily harder on the full population, as rulers began amassing professional armies instead of local militias to make war on nations. By the late 1900s, hostage-taking had become a standard tool for underdogs to level the playing field.
"That's what works against American citizens abroad. You are so high-profile you can be manipulated as a symbol," Kemper says.
The start of conflict
Saba, ironically, has devoted much of his life to counteract that. He was in college in 1960 when he shook hands with John F. Kennedy, who was running for president and soon would create the Peace Corps. Saba joined the Peace Corps and has spent a career since trying to build international bridges in business and medicine. He's been at Sanford since 2007 on a team that scouts locations for clinics in nations with insufficient health care.
In 1990, his travels placed him in Baghdad the morning of Aug. 2. He checked out of his hotel that morning to go home to his wife, who was more than eight months pregnant. The cabbie told him the airport was closed, though he didn't know why.
Saba went back to his hotel, checked in and switched on the television. The next moment, his wife called from Illinois to ask if he was all right. The TV screen was carrying the story of the Iraqi army crushing Kuwait.
"The baby was due in two weeks. The last thing I said to her was 'I will be back before the baby is born,'" he says.
Saddam's officers began rounding up Americans. Saba was in a group that went to the Al Rasheed hotel, the same building that would become an outpost for U.S. journalists when the war began five months later. The captors treated them reasonably well, he said. They could move around some. Some partied to kill time. Saba remembers going bowling.
Still, fresh in mind was what happened a decade earlier in Iran, Iraq's neighbor to the east. Mendez, the Affleck character in "Argo," spirited out six Americans to freedom relatively early in that ordeal. But for most of the Iran hostages, the crisis ran 444 days, from November 1979 to January 1981.
Saba heard conflicting signals. Iraq seemed to be looking for a way to back down the crisis, while President Bush was promising to escalate it to whatever level was necessary.
Finally, a week in, Saba decided it was time to go. He took his cue from the hotel sound system, where Muzak played a recording of Arnold Dorsey, better known as Engelbert Humperdinck, singing "Please release me, let me go."
"I said, 'Engelbert, thank you brother, I'm out of here.' I decided to make a run for it."
Saba and another American hailed a taxi and asked for a ride out of the country. The cabbie agreed. They picked Jordan for a destination, which would be an eight-hour ride at considerable risk.
Three times Iraqi soldiers stopped the cab, Saba says. Guns came through the window with barrels to their faces. Three times they were able to talk their way through.
Saba told the truth. He said he had to get back to America because his wife was about to give birth. (That was Affleck at the airport in "Argo.")
He attempted to follow the rules of foreign travel. Speak the language. Know the people.
"Understand the customs. Treat people like people," he says.
But his emotions were in conflict.
"I'm burning inside and trying to stay cool on the outside," he says.
At one stop, the soldiers forced them to get out. They sat and drank tea together.
"We spoke in Arabic," Saba says.
The soldiers let them pass. They came to a no-man's land at the border with Jordan, then caught a ride to Amman with Danish journalists. Word spread that they were Americans fresh out of Baghdad, and the interviews began, including one with ABC's "Nightline." The next day, on the flight back to the U.S., Saba saw a rerun of himself chatting the night before with Ted Koppel.
Saba was back home for the birth of his son, Daniel. His brief fame led to more interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and Barbara Walters. Humperdinck invited him to a concert. A New York Times reporter enlisted him to present an Emmy award. He also testified about his experience at the U.S. Capitol.
Saba's work in the Peace Corps put him in place to shake Lyndon Johnson's hand when the president was touring Southeast Asia. He met presidents Nixon in Hong Kong, Ford in Houston, Carter in Atlanta and Reagan at the White House. He met the first President Bush after he left office, President Clinton in Saudi Arabia and shook hands with the future President Obama in 2008 at the Sioux Falls Arena. Adding his handshake with President Eisenhower as a boy, an encounter his father arranged in North Dakota, and with candidate JFK, Saba has met 10 of the last 11 presidents, all but the second George Bush.
He also met Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, who became a TV news celebrity in 1991 for his press conferences explaining progress in the war. They sat near each other on a flight and had a disturbing chat.
"He said, 'We were contemplating a plan to take Baghdad out. There were so few of you, and you were so isolated, you probably would have been collateral damage,'" Saba says.
Saba doesn't remember the other American in the cab ride. Nor does he know the name of the Iraqi cab driver who risked his life to do them a favor.
And the price for freedom? Saba said he and the other American each paid the driver $50.