Remembering Easter, ANZAC Day and Christmas Creek

Mr Alan Dale

On a memorial tablet in a church in country NSW:

In proud and loving memory of
Cpl James Phillip Henderson
Only son of Robert and Caroline Henderson
Killed in action at Ypres 16 March 1916
Aged 22 years

He, being dead, yet speaketh

On a plaque at Brisbane Girls Gammar School:

This Garden
Was established by the Fathers Group
As a memorial to those staff and students
Who lost their lives in an accident at Christmas Creek
On 21 April, 1979

Helen Gahn, Jillian Skaines, John Stamford, Janelle Stamford (Nee Wherry)

We give thanks for the courage and selflessness shown by all those who survived

On a tombstone in a churchyard in Birmingham, the words from St John’s gospel:

I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord.  He who believeth in me though he were dead yet shall he live and he who liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

I am sure we have all passed by hundreds of memorials like this, often with barely a glance let alone a thought as to what they represent. Young lives cut short, their potential unrealised and the intense and ongoing grief, loss and despair of those who loved them and continue a bitter-sweet remembrance.

But today, in this month of April, as a school, we once again stop and in silence focus and remember. We anticipate the solemn celebration of ANZAC Day next Wednesday, 25 April.  We think about what happened at Christmas Creek 26 years ago this Saturday, 21 April. And as we remember, we both enter into the events of the past and we make them present. As human beings we have the unique ability to be aware of both the past and future as well as the present, and also of how the past and the future impact on that present. It is true the past is never dead to those who would know how the present came to be. The dead are never dead as long as they inhabit the memory of the living, as who and what they were somehow become part of us.

Contemporary technology aids and reinforces this process and sense of connecting and human connectedness; the television programmes making stories out of the old sepia photographs and yellowing film footage. Young faces in uniform, looking out at us; faces we could have known. And so the story is told and retold. Gallipoli and the Burma Railway are no longer just pointless horror and meaningless disaster but they become part of our personal and community meaning; ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances and somehow transcending themselves. In the midst of the pity of war, the pity war distilled, the loyalty, the mateship, the self-sacrifice smothering fear and self-doubt, is what the Australian war poet John Manifold called ‘the courage chemically pure’. Somehow becoming what they otherwise might never have been – the stuff of myth and legend, encapsulating what at best we are, as human beings and as a nation.

It is this individual human quality which makes the dead facts of history live: not the self-serving official war histories by which Generals and politicians try to explain and justify what they did, not only to others but to their own also.

Always remember, never forget.

Most of you have been to the Memorial Outdoor Education campus at Marrapatta and been introduced to the reason for the memorial. You have seen the photos of Jill, Helen, John and Janelle; faces from the receding past looking out at us in our present. Frozen in time and forever young.

Only a very few of us now can say we knew them in life. I did. John was about my age. I taught Jill and Helen in Year 9 History. John and Janelle left two little girls who are now grown up. Helen and Jill were only just beginning to grow up. There were all the hopes and expectations of achievement and careers, love, marriage and children. Perhaps their daughters might have been here at Brisbane Girls Grammar today.

But at about 8.45 am on the morning of Saturday 20 April 1979, nearing their destination the bus passed through a gate into the property of local farmer, Mr Campbell, and John spoke to farm worker and local identity Mr Gilmore about the condition of the road. Receiving a reassuring answer, he left a message to be passed on to Mr Campbell: tell him I will see him tomorrow.

The bus proceeded slowly for about fifteen minutes. About five miles in, it stopped to allow John’s wife Janelle to close the gates as they left the property. It waited on a narrow section of unsealed road above a steep slope. Janelle re-entered the bus, which then slowly proceeded on its way. It negotiated a left hand curve in the road and then slowly down a slight grade. It was moving over to the edge of the roadway to avoid a spoon drain, when the earth under the passenger side rear wheel suddenly gave way causing the bus to leave the roadway, roll over several times and eventually come to rest on the banks of Christmas Creek, 150 feet from the roadway. John, Janelle, Helen and Jill were thrown out and killed instantly, while dazed and injured girls, some of them seriously injured, lay scattered down the hillside.

After Gallipoli, Australia was never to be the same again. After Christmas Creek, this School was never to be the same again. The massive suffering, destruction and loss of life in two world wars, could have sapped and destroyed the nations confidence and faith in its purpose. Cynicism and despair could have taken over. The Christmas Creek disaster could have spelt the end not only of the vision for Outdoor Education but for all adventurous innovation in the School.

Instead, in both cases, just the opposite occurred. The negatives became positives.

The courage, purpose and determination of the dead and injured somehow came alive in the hearts and minds of those left behind, in particularly vivid ways. Part of the reason is that this experience lies deeper than either of these events in the spiritual roots of our western culture. This is also the time of the celebration of Passover and Easter, of resurrection, new life, hope, victory over death. After winter there is always spring. Out of darkness there is always light. Out of despair, there is always hope. Out of all the deaths of our existence, there is always life.

For the Jewish tradition, this is Passover (Pesach) time, the heart and focus of the Jewish year. At Passover they not only remember but relive the liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, under the great prophet and law giver Moses, three and a half thousand years ago. This is the great founding event of Jewish faith and identity, the great historical myth of Israel, a celebration and affirmation of liberation and of eternal hope. No matter how often we are knocked down, we will get up again and go on. No matter how close we come to annihilation, the remnant will survive and return. This is the hope filled Jewish view of the meaning of all their national and religious history and it is enshrined in Hebrew poetry and iconography. Even thought the vine is cut down and the stump burnt, it will shoot and blossom and bear fruit again. And always, always, next year, next year at home, in Jerusalem.

This Jewish faith is the direct ancestor of and an integral part of Christian faith. Passover is the birth time of Christian tradition and identity – the death and resurrection of its founder, the Jewish prophet Jesus of Nazareth. Like Passover, Easter is also a celebration of hope and liberation. The good may be knocked down, even killed, but it is never ultimately destroyed. Goodness overcomes evil, hope overcomes despair, love overcomes hatred, life overcomes death. No matter what happens we shall overcome.

It is out of this context that we can believe the war dead and those who lost their lives at Christmas Creek have not died in vain. We will honour their memory by achieving what they sought to achieve, by being what they sought to be. They will continue to live in our memory and in our actions.

Wartime disaster helped shape and strengthen the sense of Australian identity and national character, giving it purpose and direction. They did not die in vain. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

After Christmas Creek, rather than retreating, the School and its wider community pulled together with determination to ensure that what had begun in disaster should go on to completion and the result is the splendid site and Outdoor Education programmes we have at Marrapatta today.

So here in remembrance, in this season of renewal, resurrection and hope, we make present those past lives that have become intertwined with our lives. We engage with the faces that look out at us from the old photographs. We name their names. We recall their deeds.

Their bodies are buried in peace. Their name liveth for evermore.     

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