On the nighttime approach to the Salisbury airport, the jet descends in a crazy pattern to avoid the slight chance of ground fire. Cabin lights are out, shades are drawn. Someone leans over and chuckles:

"We are landing at Salisbury. Turn you watch back 40 years. Or is it 50?"

Within a day or two you get the joke. The first impressions are of the rural South I knew as a boy in the 1930s. Black maids and houseboys, earning $20 to $60 a month, fetch and bow, saying "Master " and "Boss." Black laborers, working for $12 to $20 a month plus rations, cluster in grass huts on the white farmer's land, like the Mississippi sharecroppers of the remembered past.

"They are like childrfen," a housewife says. "You have to do everything for them. You have to stand over them to get anything done. It's more trouble than it's worth sometimes. But they are very happy people. It's not like South Africa."

A young woman asks if we have a dishwasher, a clothes washer and a dryer. She laughs: "You know what we call them here? Kaffirs [which literally means infidel, but in common usage is the equivalent of 'nigger']."

Again, I think of Una, Tenn., 1939.

That is one racial dimension here. There are others.

In the cities, members of the growing black middle class patronize hotels and restaurants and bars in handsome dress, laughing and bantering with the whites. They are government officials, professors, journalists, politicians, businessmen, shop clerks, accountants and soldiers. They live, in growing numbers, in the green suburbs with swimming pools, Mercedes cars, white neighbors, maids and houseboys.

A black dentist calls one day to invite me to a "sun-downer" and to meet a new figure on the political scene. He is black and lives in the suburbs. There are a couple of hundred guests -- black and white -- milling around on the patio, bathed with sound from the stereo.

It is a Chevy Chase cocktail party -- canapes, cheeses and various kinds of drink, except for Scotch, which is hard to find in this country.

There is a lot of joking about CIA money in the new candidate's campaign and one of his managers remarks:

"You see how untrue that is. If the CIA was behind us we'd have Scotch."

The next day, in a cabinet office, a white secretary is talking to the black minister:

"Your son called again, sir, and I told him we would have him picked up. I hope you wife didn't have other plans, sir, but I couldn't reach her."

An erreverent thought comes to mind:

Ebony magazine, the success mirror of the black American middle class, could do a great spread here in Salisbury. That's more than you can say for Una, Tenn., right now.

For 15 years this country has been the target of a worldwide boycott -- no exports, no imports. So you expect a threadbare society, moving on bicycles and burros. But in the cities it's more like Fairfax County.

The streets are full of Italian, German and French cars. The shops are crammed with goods. The per capita ownership of swimming pools must be among the highest in the world. Prices are absurdly low. A three-star meal for four in a three-star restaurant is less than $25, wine and drinks included. Three journalists in this "hardship post" rent a three-bedroom house with pool, tennis courts and servants for about $250 a month.

Sanction-busting is a fine art here. The South African connection, of course, has been crucial; they share common borders. But there is more to it than that. More than 1,000 home-grown industries have sprung up to fill the void. And Zimbabwe-Rhodesian aircraft roam the world, collecting everything from arms to toiletries.

"You can buy anything you want," said Air Marshal M. J. McLaren. "Helicopters, fighters, you name it. It's on the market. The only question is price."

I Visited one of the young pilots who files a DC8 to mysterious ports of call including Amsterdam. His bachelor home is spectacular, filled with the latest hi-fi equipment, modernistic furniture, fine liquors and Oriental rugs. From the patio we look out on the pool and tennis court, sip Scotch and crack the old joke:

"War is hell."

It's different in the beautiful and tortured contryside. People are dying and living with fears of dying, and I quickly got rid of another illustration: that this is a simple struggle between black "liberationists" and a "white ruling class."

A headline on a story I had written reflected that pervasive myth: Guerrilla Armies Take Surprisingly Small Toll Against Rhodesian Whites

It isn't the whites who bear the brunt of this war. It is the blacks on the opposing sides. In seven years of fighting, perhaps 800 or 900 whites have been killed, more than half of them civilians. But nearly 20,000 blacks have died, including thousands of civilian victims of the guerrilla forces. Other hundreds -- or thousands -- of black civilians have been killed by government troops in crossfire or as "collaborators."

The black masses here are not visibly in active or even passive revolt against the Salisbury government. They provide the labor force for the mines and factories and farms. Thousands are in government jobs, providing civil administration in the countryside.

They provide 80 percent of the troops for the armed forces, take 80 percent of the casualties and engage in many of the dirtier jobs of the war, including harrowing external raids against gureeilla bases in Zambia and Mozambique.

So the war is a joint enterprise, white and black against a common enemy -- the Patriotic Front, whose support in the country could be massive or minimal. No one knows.

There was an incident on the road out of Fort Victoria a couple of weeks ago. A white and a black soldier were clearing a Patriotic Front roadblock. aThey touched off a land mine, were blown off their feet, stunned and cut up by flying rocks. As they were brought out and patched up, the white soldier stood over the black, yelling:

"We're all right, Kenny, we're all right. By God, we're Rhodesians, Kenny."

Kenny gave a cool wave and smiled.

Battlefield brotherhood.

There is also battlefield discrimination. The Rhodesian African Rifles are an all-black regiment, except for a cadre of white officers. An RAR private gets about $100 a month.

Many of the RLI and SAS recruits are foreigners -- Americans, South Africans, Frenchmen, New Zealanders, Canadians and Australians.

You can't get an accurate count of these foreigners. the estimates range from 400 to about 1,000.

Three Commando (companies) of the RLI had six men killed recently -- three were Rhodesian, one Canadian and two American, Trooper Steve Dwyer and Sgt. Hugh McCall.

Call them "mercenaries" at your peril. It makes them very aggressive. They receive, as they coldly point out, the same pay as the white Rhodesians -- $200 a month for a private, $600 a month for a captain.

There are many rumors about the role of the South Africans as pilots, border guards in the south and the army cadres.Troop 6 of the RLI's Two Commando has a strength of about 30 men and enough South Africans to have the nickname "Boere Kommandoses." But you run into few of them among the troops and if there are any large units in the country, they keep well hidden.

The main South African contribution is in arms, ammunition and either direct financial support or easy credit. The war is costing $1.5 million a day and there is credible evidence that 40 to 50 percent comes from Pretoria.

Beyond the city lights, the helicopter gunships and the apparatus of the modern state, ancient Africa endures. Animal herds roam through the hills and the bush -- elephant, leopard, buffalo, impala, baboon, kudu. In the villages and the kraals, the old ways survive. A man's wealth is still measured by the number of his cattle and wives, who know nothing of liberation. They hoe and plant the land and cook and bear babies; the men have much leisure time for talk and beer.

The tribal identities also endure -- Shona, Karanga, Zezuru, Manyika, N'dau, Kalanga, Korenkore, Tonga, Venda, Matabele. And these tribal divisions loom large in the present war and in what may later come.

Joshua Nkomo, one of the Patriotic Front leaders, is a Matabele; the co-leader, Robert Mugabe, is Shona.

The Matabele subjugated and defeated the Shona in war after war before the white man came at the end of the last century. The enmities persist and even today the two guerrilla forces -- Nkomo's ZIPRAs, Mugabe's ZANLAs -- clash when they meet.

The specter of full-scale tribal warfare in the event of a Patriotic Front triumph here is widely and openly discussed. Recent history suggests that is not a fanciful fear. Since World War II, according to political scientist Harold Isaacs, as many as 15 million people have been killed in tribal and religious wars -- 2 million in Biafra, 300,000 in Uganda, 500,000 in Bangladesh, uncounted thousands in Cambodia. All over Africa, such conflicts continue.

It can happen here.