Bill clarifies that it’s the “The Men’s Community Shed”, not The Community Men’s Shed, “a big difference,” he emphasises. “It’s our shed, but the men run it for the community.”
Bill pitched to Alan that the Shed could make 100 toy trucks for Christmas to raise funds. The trucks would be sold in component form, like Ikea, so a parent and child could build it together. “100 bloody trucks, Billy?” Alan said he remembered thinking. Daunted, Alan set out to build a template truck, only to dismantle it, measure each part, and write instructions on how to reassemble. After a lot of tinkering and perfecting, Alan and Bill called in the crew of members for what would be known as 100 truck day. The leaders appointed each man a piece—wheel, axis, body, and the sundry of others—to make. All day the men laboured and sweated to create perfectly cut parts that would fit with the whole. As the sun lowered and the last of the bodies were fabricated, the men lined up into an assembly line with each individual responsible for dropping a certain piece, and the right number of it, into the gift bag and for the first time the men had abandoned personal projects on separate benches to band together as one for a greater cause.
Alan and Bill, after the success of the 100 toy truck day, decided to scratch for funds to mentor children from the Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS), an organisation that helps refugees who have been through some “nasty shit,” Alan told me. When Bill announced to the men that the shed would mentor the children for the day, a few of the more conservative men were skeptical. “Bloody terrorists,” some said.
Bill organised the day to fall around Christmas time because most of the children wouldn’t be celebrating, and he wanted to welcome them into the community with open arms. Alan designed a treasure box for each of the Shed’s members to help the children build. The children in dire need of a guiding hand brimmed with joy and the men—some who were also isolated, had no one, felt worthless, and had consequently over many years formed a hard, guff shell—finally softened. “The heart aspect of the men came out,” Bill told me. “They saw the true nature of these kids, how beautiful these children were. The men think that some kids here take things for granted, so to see these refugee kids that don't have a lot and are struggling be so appreciative and have such impeccable manners was profound.”
From a few successful outreach programs Bill and Alan decided to use the financial momentum to fund a 10 week program for the young people of the Federation of WA Police and Community Youth Centres (PCWC), an organisation that helps the troubled, challenged and disadvantaged young people.
On the first day a mixed bunch of kids—primarily indigenous and a few from a plethora of ethnic groups—rocked up with snapbacks angled to the side and swaggered along the walls adorned with hammers, a tool, Bill said, they had up to then never used legally. “I remember thinking, ‘Geeze, We’re going to have some fun with you lot,’” Alan told me. The kids were known to intimidate caretakers, but the Shed supports a horde of men who, together, have lived through enough of life's woes to handle a few unruly teenagers. Bill walked up to one of the kids, who was around 10, and attempted to break the ice. “So, you go to school?” he asked. “Nup,” the kid replied. “I’ve retired.”
Despite the added resistance compared with the refugee kids, the Bill and Alan decided to apply the same model of using the bench as a leveller to bring all walks of life side by side to complete a common project to build relationship. Alan organised the kids to do nail art, the woodworking equivalent of dot painting, an idea he got from when he worked in jails. Firstly, Alan demonstrated how to cut the timber to size. “So, we this 300 by 100 mm piece of timber”—he pointed to the middle—“and we want to cut it in half, so we have to find out what half of 300 is. Have we got anyone here good at math?”
“If we were good at math we wouldn’t be here, ya dumb codger,” one of them snarled.
“He’s good at math,” another said. “Pretty good at stealing stuff and selling it for good price—”
“C’mon,” Alan interrupted. “Figure it out. What’s half of 300.”
The kids turned to each other. “I think it's in the hundreds,” one whispered.
“One hundred and something, huh?” another said.
“140,” one shouted.
“Close,” Alan said.
“150,” another bawled. “Good, boy,” Alan praised.
He carried out a quick introduction to the tape measure as the kids marked out blocks of wood.
“Now we need to draw a line across from the 150”—he held up a set square—“using this thing. It’s called a square.” He pointed to the corner. “This is 90 degrees. Does anyone know what we call 90 degrees?”
“Doesn’t fuckin get that hot here,” one yelled.
“It’s called a right angle.”
The boys cut the timber to size and on the wooden canvas began to draw the outline of a mountainscape. Alan then provided nails of different sizes to give the landscape depth. The boys began to ferociously bang away.
“I don’t want you banging the nails all the way in. Here,” Alan said and, as a carpenter of forty years, demonstrated how to properly hammer in a nail. He gracefully hit the nail just enough for it to slightly protrude.
“This is fucking dumb,” a few said as the rest tried to steal each other’s nails.
“Oi, get off my nails,” they shouted and pushed. They continued to muck around but also continue to work. As the afternoon progressed they drew more and more quiet and attentive and by the time Alan announced that it was time to pack up, the boys refused to stop.
“C’mon,” Alan said. “It’s my hometime.”
“Just a little longer,” they pleaded. “I’ve just got a tiny bit to go.” The boys conscientiously finished the piece.
“See you next week,” Bill and Alan said.
“Maybe,” they shrugged, massaging their sore wrists and complaining of tendonitis.
A week later, Bill and Alan drove around a bend to the shed uncertain to whether any of the kids would return. As they straightened from the bend and the shed came into view, they noticed outside the shed’s doors a line of kids, waiting to be let in.
As the weeks progressed the kids started to create their own patterns and drawings, learning adding and subtracting, fractions, division, trigonometry, and the relationship between radius, diameter and circumference. “They learnt the value of learning,” Bill said and he smiled as he told that one of the boys, that he knew of, went on to study at TAFE.
The Fremantle Shed is filled with men who have a short fuse and a thin filter, which means the strength of mateship bonds are often tested. Alan in the interview pointed to a weathered photo of four men standing around the original bench in White Gum Valley. In the middle stood a Benjamin Button figure called Joe, “a little Irishman, a fiery bastard he was,” Alan told me.
Joe used to arrive at the Shed and plonk his gear on the corner table, or what became known as ‘Joe’s bench.’ He’d spread out the tools unaware that the other men had to bunch up among the remaining benches. Joe would then line up a number of bottles brought from home and pull down a 4L jug of aquadhere glue from the Shed’s shelves and empty it, every last drop, into his own. Alan, finally fed up with Joe’s sense of entitlement, stormed over. But before Alan could unload, Joe turned around and pulled out his wallet.
“Here’s five dollars for the glue, Alan.”
It’s sixteen dollars a bloody litre! Alan thought.
“I want to pay my way,” Joe had said.
They’d often fight, Alan says, and Joe would leave, saying “You can stick it up your arse. I’m going home and never coming back.” But the Shed’s men would always arrive at Joe’s door a few days later, calling “Hey, mate. Come back. We’re missing you.”
Some time later, Joe was diagnosed with a terminal illness and despite losing a kilo a week he continued to come to the shed. A few days before he died, Alan asked Joe, who now looked skeletal, how he was doing. Alan told me the sickly man slowly looked up, smiling.
“Well,” Joe said. “The doctor told me to buy no green bananas.”
A lot of men who have lost everything have arrived at the Shed’s doors as a final stop, a last hope. They’ve collapsed at the door and the men of the Shed have picked them up.
“Come on in,” they say. “Come have a cup of tea. I’ve been there. It’s not easy but it’s not the end of the world. You can get through this.”
After drinking that first tea, the broken men slowly muster the energy to want to work with the tools. Bill says one of the members made a breadboard and later said, “That breadboard saved my life.”
But Bill and Alan solemnly say that every year the Shed still loses too many critically depressed men. In the interview, Alan stared at the ground and told of a 52 year-old man who had lost his business, wife and kids. “I remember saying, it’s not easy, mate, but a lot of people go through this. You’re not the only one. There’s light at the end of the black tunnel,” Alan had said. “You just got to hang in, man. You've got mates down here.”
The man after a long time relented. “Okay,” he said. Alan thought he’d calmed down enough to see that he was cared for, that the shed betokened hope. So it came as a surprise when Alan heard the next day that the man, after spending the afternoon at the Shed, drove to an empty home and hung himself.
Alan and Bill say that in the pits of agony, redemption is scant, so they knew what to expect when they funded, with the help of Mike the Alma Street program. The six participants in the program were all classified as ‘critical cases’, which included patients with an ugly past, prone to volatile and destructive episodes, requiring a one to one ratio with an experienced carer. The men of the Shed decided to create a sculpture of human sized flowers using scrap metal which followed a theme. At the base they used leaf shaped scraps which pointed down to denote how men when they come into the shed are weak and rigid and incapable of holding themselves up. The stalks had springs for the offshoots to symbolise how the nutrients from the other men allow the spirit to grow and become taller. And at the top of the stalk are yellow flowers, showing that, after time, the men’s true nature can bloom and finally be a beam to the world. Alan told me he remembers asking the patients where they should put flowers.
“I don’t know. Where do you think?” they said.
“It’s your sculpture. You tell me,” Alan said.
“Well, probably at the top.”
“Okay well you tack weld it on, then.”
“I don’t know how to weld.”
Alan says he guided the patient's hands as they welded and connected the flower to the stem. “They could see that they could create something,” Alan said. “They could see they had worth.” Bill says for that time the patients were well, but after the program finished they lost three of the men to suicide. One of the survivors asked the carer to take him back to the shed. The man was volatile and a titanic. “He could crush a grown man’s hand with a handshake,” Alan said. So he could only come to the shed at certain times of the week when his carer was available. Although the visits were scarce, he became slowly more lucid and calm and after his carer left the hospital, Alan said he’d look after him. Three years later the man comes to the shed unaccompanied where he attends to the blooming garden as an active member.
I arrived at the new headquarters in Hilton for the interview. (The Shed in White Gum Valley is now due to be demolished.) The purpose built shed was surrounded by a lush garden created by the members, fitted with quiet seating areas for drinking tea and even a smaller bricked shed reserved for playing music. The diversity of the space qualifiers Barry Golding’s statement in his book The Men’s Shed Movement that the Freo Men’s Shed is one of the most consistently innovative Sheds in Australia. I looked to Alan, who had arrived back at the Shed after a stint in the hospital from cancer. The whole Shed stopped working and Bill and the horde of others flooded to the car park to give him a hug. “It’s a special place,” Alan said. “Until you get sick, you don’t realise how many people love ya, and care about ya. It’s like this time one of the members, old John, got sick and we got a card and had all the men sign it. And you can imagine old John when he got this card from 45 men, saying ‘Get well soon, John. We miss ya.’ His daughter came to visit and saw this card and said, ‘Wow, dad. You’ve made an impact on all these people. I didn’t know you were so likeable.”