The windscreen wipers are a-beatin' in time
The song they sing is a part of my mind
And I can't believe it's a-really happenin' to me
Oh, but I'm over the edge and down the mountain side
I know they'll tell about the night I died
In the rain when the lights on the hill were a-blindin' me
These words from a song sung by the late Aussie country singing icon, Slim Dusty, may as well have been telling the story of my father’s last hours on earth way back in 1966 when I was a mere thirteen months old. He was on an interstate truck run for TNT when he came around a bend on a rainy night and ploughed straight into the back of another truck ahead of him. I’ve lived my life without knowing my father. My mother, grandparents and uncles tried to help me to get to know him, and I appreciated their efforts. However, nothing anyone could say would help me know him. I know a lot about him. But there was no connection.
I’m now approaching my sixth decade, and it took a trip back to Australia to help me know him a bit more. We’ve done two things while I’ve been here. The first was to visit my father’s actual resting place at Hemmant Cemetery and, with one of my sons and his family, we were able to bring his headstone back up to close to what it was in the beginning. It is now legible.
The second thing happened only a couple of days ago and has prompted this blog. Ewen and I went to visit my cousin, John, who was named for my father, his Uncle John whom he has never met. He remembered about something special and asked me if I knew about the lights on the hill at Gatton. I didn’t have a clue. I mean, lights on a hill? Doesn’t every town have a hill with lights on it? What was so special about Gatton? He wouldn’t say, but said he’d take me there.
Well, Thursday came around fast enough, and we zoomed off to Ipswich to meet up with John, and with his wife and young son, we set off for Gatton. How can I explain what we saw? It’s not so much what I saw, which was powerful enough, but what did I feel?
Let me tell you a bit about the monument…
The Lights on the Hill Memorial was opened in 2005 founded by Kathy White and her husband Gary, who had been driving trucks for more than thirty years. Having experienced the loss of more than their fair share of friends to trucking accidents, they commissioned J.H. Wagner& Sons to design a monument commemorating truckdrivers and coach drivers who had died on the job. Gatton was selected because the town is an important hub on many transport routes. The name, of course, comes from Slim Dusty’s song, “Lights on the Hill” and he and his wife, Joy, agreed to become patrons of the memorial before his death in 2003.
It may seem coincidental, but I thought it was profound when I discovered that the memorial was opened on 8 October 2005, thirty-nine years to the day of my father’s death.
The monument is at Lake Apex Park, Gatton, Queensland, and consists of a central wall covered on both sides by a series of brass plaques. A circular wall surrounds this, where more brass plaques have been placed with ample space having been left for more tragedies to be memorialised. It resembles the front of a truck – aptly so. As well as the names of the fallen and patrons of the site, there are also poetic tributes in the form of plaques strategically placed throughout the monument and its surroundings.
It invites quiet reflection, and that, I believe, is why I could feel him there. Despite the heat of the day, my skin was covered in gooseflesh and tears welled in my eyes. I’m not normally an overly demonstrative person, preferring to mourn in private. However, on this day, I felt a little overwhelmed by the emotion. I know this isn’t his final resting place, but I felt that he was more at home here, mingling with his fellow truckers who had also lost their lives on the road.
John told me that a convoy is held each year, bringing the trucking community, families, and supporters together for a solemn journey through the Lockyer Valley. Truckers meet at either Ipswich or Toowoomba and begin their journey to Gatton, finally meeting up at the monument where a memorial service is held. Stories are shared, tears are shed, and the roar of engines becomes a collective tribute to the fallen. One year soon, I hope to be able to participate in the convoy, if not in a vehicle representing my dad, then as a bystander, soaking up the atmosphere.
As the sun sets, the Lights on the Hill memorial illuminates the darkening sky, casting a warm glow over the names etched in brass.
For me, the monument is personal. It symbolises the life of my father, a man I never had the opportunity to know in the flesh. I’m glad I went. I’m grateful to John for taking me there and for the people who cared enough about him and all those who met a similar fate to donate their time, talents, and efforts to create such a beautiful place. I could feel my father there as, just for the day, he left his rest in the great truck stop in the sky so that I could know him, even just a little bit.
And so, within a matter of weeks, I have had my father’s headstone repaired, and visited the Lights on the Hill memorial. I knew of the existence of the first, but the second took me by surprise. I’m glad I made the trip back home. I’m glad I was able to reconnect with my father albeit from beyond the grave.
RIP John Graham Bullis. You are loved and missed, every single day.