Reportage

Joining the pack

WE SIT AROUND the kitchen table like Jesus and his disciples, except there are only six of us and Jesus is drinking too much red wine and swearing a lot. There's Jayne, Simmo, Sally, Geraldine, Flinty and me. And Bernie, of course: our Jesus. We're the BackTrack Crew and I'm the latest ring-in to this gang of youth workers.

Bernie's eyes burn bright but look troubled all the same. For the past week he's been busy talking to the media about his most recent youth-work initiative, the Iron Man Welders. Now he's going through a moral dilemma about being seen as the ‘boss man' of BackTrack, the spokesperson with all the answers.

He takes a swig of wine. ‘It's hard for me when people ask, "What is it?" Fuck, I don't know.'

At the head of the table, Simmo shifts his half-moon glasses down his nose and moves his chair in closer. His black beanie makes him look like he's about to organise a bank heist. ‘BackTrack's a group of people doing shit for youth. I'm here because I like the idea of helping you out,' he says. ‘Are you worried it's too Bernie-focused?'

‘Yeah.'

Simmo shrugs. ‘But I see BackTrack as being Bernie. Some bastard's got to be the leader.'

Bernie runs his fingers through his wavy hair. Although he spent much of his youth as a stockman in Central Australia, his skin is clear and unlined, his face boyishly handsome though he's approaching forty.

He glances around the table. ‘Most of you have known me long enough to know that I'm great at flying off on tangents and having all this passion, but if you lot weren't writing the grant applications or helping out where you can, then it would be nothing – just someone with a lot of passion running around chasing his fuckin' tail.'

Maybe so. But he's the one with all the ideas, the ones that work.

‘Can I ask a question?' Sally, his sister-in-law, looks like she wants more order in this meeting. ‘Don't we have a mission statement or vision or something?'

Bernie gives her a wry smile. ‘We do that every time we get together, every time we get pissed.'

Sally laughs, shakes her head like she should have known better.

Then Bernie's wife, Jayne, has her say, elbows on the table. A poncho flares over her arms like dark wings and I notice, not for the first time, her robust beauty; she's a clear-eyed, straight-talking earth mother. ‘I'm sure we've answered all these questions before, Bernie. Just keep talking about BackTrack exactly as you have. It's fairly definable – it's us here, in this room. It has been since the beginning.'

Bernie stands, stretches, and goes out to the cold night air, ducking his head as he walks through the back door for a smoke.

 

THE IRON MAN Welders meet on Sundays in an old council depot on the edge of Armidale, a university town on the northern tablelands of New South Wales. About a year ago, Bernie had a vision of a welding project that would build on the strengths of a group of young men who had dropped out of high school but weren't ready for work. He asked the Armidale community to help out. The local council offered him the depot, which was once a welding workshop and was lying empty, as if waiting for Bernie and the boys to come along and claim it.

There was nothing in the huge shed, not even a power lead. The boys, recruited from a school welding program that Bernie ran the previous year, turned up each weekend and worked hard to clean and create their own workplace. They borrowed nearly everything, from brooms to welding equipment, and started collecting recycled steel for the first batch of products they planned to make and then sell at the monthly markets. Local businesses gave scrap metal; people lent grinders, extension cords and old work boots.

Then the money started coming in. A local builder forked out the first five hundred dollars. The bowling club gave a thousand and a steel-manufacturing business donated a MIG welder. The credit union offered to draw up a business and marketing plan, organised insurance, and contributed a thousand dollars for equipment. Armidale Family Support agreed to keep track of the finances. Hillgrove Mine donated a thousand and raised the possibility of apprenticeships, and the NSW Premier's Department handed over a grant worth five thousand dollars. It seemed like every week Bernie and the boys were in the local paper, celebrating some new success.

A few months ago, I saw a photo of Bernie in the newspaper, surrounded by a group of teenage boys, faces beaming with happiness and pride, and something stirred inside me. I wanted to be part of it: the Iron Man Welders.

The next day I heard Bernie on the radio, seeking community support for the project. ‘We'll take any positive contribution,' he said. His words sounded clipped and tight, like he wasn't one for mucking around. ‘Whether you've got a pile of old steel or timber in your backyard, or if you've got an idea, or if you like working with young people and you're prepared to come down to the shed and work one-on-one with some of these kids...'

On impulse I rang. I'd never used power tools, let alone done any welding. I liked bushwalking, baking cakes. I enjoyed order, cleanliness, silence. What was I thinking?

Over the past months, though, I've come to feel at home in the shed. Right from the start the boys were gracious in accepting a 42-year-old woman into their grimy world. They find easy jobs for me to do – like filing washers for candleholders or scrubbing rust off horseshoes. I sweep the floor, watch what's going on, listen to what they want to tell me. The fellas who come along are the sort of misfits you see wandering the streets of any country town with nothing to do, nowhere to go. Once, I might have crossed the street to avoid them.

Most of the Iron Man Welders didn't ‘engage positively' with the education system. None has finished Year 12; some barely made it through Year 10. One was expelled in Year 11 for ‘kissing his missus' in the schoolyard, another told a teacher to ‘fuck off' on a ski trip because the teacher wouldn't stop hassling him, and another finished Year 10 at TAFE because he was about to be kicked out of school and reckoned the teachers didn't like him anyway. The welding shed is a different story. They love it. Bernie gives them the chance to take responsibility for their life, to engage on their own terms with the community.

The first Sunday I joined them it was the middle of winter. I walked in carrying a tray of freshly baked brownies. Conspicuous in my new blue King Gee work clothes, I huddled from the cold in the open-sided tin shed. Music blared from an old radio, and thumping and grinding noises came from the machines. Sparks flashed; everyone dragged on rollies, littering every sentence with ‘shit' and ‘fuck'. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself not to panic.

Thommo, a stocky bloke in his late teens, took me on a tour. His voice rumbled softly, and I could barely hear what he was saying as he showed me the kitchen area, the main workspace and a forge he'd built in a dark side room that brought to mind a scene from the Middle Ages: flickering fire, hammers and anvil, dirt floor, open drain, a rusty tap jutting out from the wall.

He led me towards a shelf at one end of the shed to show me the objects on display, things they were hoping to sell at the markets: a range of candleholders, nutcrackers, penholders, ashtrays and coat hooks made from horseshoes. There was a smartly presented copy of the Iron Man Welders' business plan, and several glass-framed photos: Thommo bent over the anvil, hammering a piece of glowing-red metal; three boys dressed in work gear, looking into the distance like soldiers on the hill at Gallipoli; Bernie and about eight boys slouched in front of his yellow ute; and a young bloke with curly hair using a grinder, a halo of sparks around his head.

Bernie doesn't actually seem to know much about welding. Every now and then I hear him say, ‘No point asking me questions about welding shit' – but that could be his way of throwing the decision-making back onto the boys. He knows the basics, like what processes are involved for different jobs, but most of the fellas have the edge on him. Some are doing TAFE certificates in engineering, following on from their school studies.

Along with understanding the welding and power tools, I'm also keen to learn more about boys. You'd think I'd know enough, as I have four of my own. But lately the eldest, Joey, has been giving me plenty to worry about. He left school before finishing Year 10, even though he's more than bright enough. I don't like the way he's drifting through life these days – no job, no direction, living off Centrelink payments, sleeping in till midday. If only he was coming to the shed each week, slowly ‘getting his shit together' like the others. ‘I'm a lone wolf,' Joey says whenever I pester him about coming down. I think it's time he joined the rest of the pack.

 

BERNIE SLIDES OPEN the screen door at Simmo's and a cold gust of night air and cigarette smoke blows in with him. He takes his place at the table, ready to carry on with the BackTrack meeting. The crew falls silent when they see his expression. He tells us he's tired of waiting on a funding application that'll secure him a part-time wage for the next two years. He wants to make a roster and call in some other blokes to help ease the load: ‘Otherwise it's just relying on me and...'

‘It gets real old,' offers Geraldine, with a knowing look.

‘Yep,' Bernie says. ‘Real old, real quick. And the pressure's on me the whole time. I'm the worst time-manager in Australia, and when we get down to the shed I go righto, I'll get those three started on that, and then I've got to go and pick up Tye or someone else, and I skip up there, and then I get back and Simmo's there and I go oh, great, Simmo must be working with them on that, and then they've drifted off and started fifteen other fuckin' projects, and I go right, Tye, you go and see Simmo and he'll tell you what to do – I've got to go and pick up blah blah blah...I'm a frazzled chook and by the time the day's over I just go what the fuck – we haven't finished anything and we started another thirty things...'

It's true. I've seen how some Sundays are messy and nothing much seems to get finished, but I still reckon Bernie is making great leaps with these boys. And besides, as he often tells me, ‘It's not about the fuckin' welding.'

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