Chapter 5 : John Salazar
There were many colourful figures in the military milieu of my father’s life – various colonels, cads and charmers, all of whom became legends and heroes in the minds of us three boys. One of the most eccentric was undeniably John Salazar.
Major John Salazar had been seconded by the British Army – probably to get rid of him. He’d been in some regiment and they’d obviously thought, ‘This man is lethal, so we’ll have to get rid of him. Let’s send him somewhere – like Africa…’ So they’d sent him to Northern Rhodesia to join the King’s African Rifles. But as far as we boys were concerned, Salazar was a hero – if for no other reason than he was the bane of everyone else’s life.
He’d originally made a name for himself when he brought his company of troops to Salisbury for a military exercise with my father. On the way down, they’d stopped at the Livingstone Hotel, near Victoria Falls, where there lived an African Grey Parrot. The parrot had become quite famous in the region, as it used to sit on a perch outside the front door of the hotel and talk to guests as they came in. The bird had seen some life – it was twenty or thirty years old. Maybe even forty.
As John Salazar and his lieutenants walked into the hotel, the parrot began to speak.
‘You bastard!’ squawked the bird.
Salazar looked round and said, ‘What did you say?’
The parrot said nothing.
Without further ado, Salazar took out his army service revolver and shot the bird through the head – much to the dismay of the owner of the hotel whose parrot had been there for some thirty-odd years!
Then John Salazar decided they were all going to play darts in the bar. So into the lounge the company trooped. After the first few arrows, he declared that he was better then the rest of his men.
‘This is not how you play darts!’ he cried. ‘You people couldn’t hit anything.’
Out came his service revolver again, and he shot the dart board off the wall.
One of the bullets went straight through the wall and into the neighbouring police station. Within moments, the police arrived at the Livingstone Hotel and ordered Salazar to leave immediately. But the hotel manager intervened, ‘Not before somebody pays the bill.’
‘Well, I’m not paying the bloody bill,’ replied Salazar. ‘I don’t pay bills.’ (He never had any money on him anyway.) ‘I need a bottle of Crème de Menthe!’
The barman reluctantly handed him a bottle of Crèmede Menthe, and Salazar proceeded to pour the green liquid on top of his officers’ heads. He then set light to their hair.
‘The first person who puts his hair out pays the bill!’ declared Salazar. And that’s how the decision was settled.
The next day, a band of wounded soldiers – including one who was now utterly broke – turned up at my father’s door to perform their scheduled military exercise. Every single officer had a terribly scarred head, with great lumps of hair missing where Salazar had set light to it.
These stories of John Salazar became the legends of our childhood. So of course it was with great glee that we set off one Sunday when I was about 12 or 13 to meet the mad man for ourselves.
We arrived at Nkomo, where my dad was going to inspect Salazar’s camp. As we arrived, we saw that Salazar had had the camp laid out with rows of immaculate tents in absolute straight lines, and in the middle was a big mess tent, with a table standing beneath the Acacia trees all decked out with the sparkling mess silver. Sitting on a chair behind the table was the legendary Major John Salazar.
He had a handlebar moustache and he was frightfully British. And he leapt to attention, with a ‘Morning, Sir! What would you like to drink?’
‘I’ll have a pink gin, thank you, John,’ replied Jock.
‘Right, Sir!’ barked Salazar, and he reached over and grabbed a rope which was dangling from a nearby Acacia tree. As he pulled the rope, a vast ‘Bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah...’ sounded out from a Bren gun that he’d had mounted in the tree.
Leaves flew everywhere and birds squawked hysterically. A little waiter came running out of the mess tent carrying a tray and, within moments, a pink gin appeared in front of my dad.
They still have a John Salazar Day in one of the Zambian regiments, and he sends them a certain amount of money each year. I met him once again when Daph was still alive, at a reunion of old Rhodesian officers down near Salisbury, England. He’d gone to Hackett’s in Piccadilly to buy all his clothes, and he was dressed in a bright pink waistcoat, with a yellow shirt and green trousers. He looked like a cartoon character.
‘So, you’re still the famous John Salazar,’ I said.
He was just as nutty as ever.