The sun was still a few hours above the horizon, and a cold wind started to blow from Petco across the Fred Meyer parking lot. People in thick jackets filed over the pavement, compelled by Christmas errands.
“Yankee!” Dave Waldal yelled for his dog. “Get your (butt) over here!”
He was bent over a red Ford F-250’s windshield on the edge of the parking lot, sticking a vacuumed suction cup to the outside of glass. He had his black hat pulled to the edge of his eyes and a scarf around his neck that pressed against his white beard whenever he looked down. He was wearing gloves, a faded winter jacket with a reflective strip that ran around the arms and torso, and insulated pants. Torn Xtratufs were on his feet.
The radio that morning told him it was 18 degrees out.
Inside the truck Steve Bon and his wife waited with the engine running. Their daughter played in the back seat, his wife knit and Bon looked over his steering wheel at the two, round contraptions stuck to either side of the chip in his windshield.
Waldal’s work is a lot cheaper than a new windshield, he said.
The family had used Waldal’s services before, Bon said. It’s convenient, too, because they live in Soldotna. They just drive to Fred Meyer, he said, and look for Waldal near the traffic lights with his briefcase of windshield repair gear, his torn “Dave’s Windshield Repair” sign and Yankee — his half-Lab, half-husky companion.
Waldal charges $20 a car, but how much he makes in a single day is none of your business, Waldal said. On busy days, when the 52-year-old isn’t deadened from the cold, he said he can do four cars at once, if he has all three of his kits. That’s less than 20 minutes a car, he said.
“There ain’t nobody on the Kenai Peninsula that can fix a window like I can,” he said.
Waldal was working slowly Thursday afternoon, though; he’d been out in the cold since the morning and he only had one of his kits with him.
“Where is my dog?” Waldal said, rifling in his kit for a plunger to screw onto the outside vacuum. His dog had not returned yet.
He screwed the plunger into a vacuum and leaned up to the open window, waggling a gloved hand and smiling at the little girl. Then he went back to check the pressure gauge on the outside vacuum.
“I know where he went,” Waldal told Bon through his open window. “He went to Petco. He loves that place.”
“You got a dog?” he asked Bon.
“Nope,” Bon said. “Not anymore. He died.”
Waldal said he got Yankee as a puppy three years ago when he was living in Homer.
“He was just nothing but tadpole when I got him,” he said.
Before Homer, and before Valdez and Ketchikan, he was bumping around the Lower 48 in a new camper. Between the year he spent in the camper and the years hitch hiking, he said he has seen every state in the U.S., except Hawaii.
When he was 22, he left Boise, Idaho, where he grew up, packed up his Harley Davidson and boarded a Washington ferry for Alaska, because it was the only direction the ferry was going, he said, the last stop.
He landed in Ketchikan first, where he worked as an airplane mechanic during the day, and at night studied for his associate’s degree in diesel mechanics.
Eventually he got his degree and started working at a logging camp, but when that job dried up, he figured: “Hey, if nobody’s going to employ me, then, I will.”
So with one year’s Alaska Permanent Fund dividend he bought a windshield repair kit — a more than $1,000 investment — and started his business.
That was seven years ago.
Now he lives in a six-person tent somewhere in Soldotna. He sleeps on a mattress, with Yankee and a propane heater to keep him warm.
“It’s nice and peaceful,” he said. “Nice and quiet. The only people that come around are the ones I invite. I like living in a tent. I have everything under control. I can’t blame anyone for what happens to me except me.”
Like last year. He was packing up camp behind Soldotna’s River City Books, before the snow got too deep, when the floor of his tent caught fire.
Flames crawled up the walls, he said.
“I was wrestling to open the door flap and the plastic zipper melted,” he said.
He was stuck and stunned. He didn’t know what to do. Then he saw Yankee in the corner, paralysed.
He said he had to get Yankee out of the tent.
He grabbed a fillet knife and gutted a side wall. He threw Yankee out. Then, in flames, flung himself out.
He had a broken wrist, melted clothing and third degree burns. When he walked out of the woods, he said he was nearly naked.
“All my stuff was burned up, including the shirt I was wearing,” he said. “But, then again, the people of Soldotna helped me out.”
They bought him new clothes and a tent, and, when he got out of the hospital, they paid all his medical bills.
“I sure liked that,” he said.
Another year someone stole one of his windshield repair kits, but Soldotna residents bought him a replacement.
And when he lived in Homer, one year someone even stole his dog. But Alaska State Troopers found Yankee next to a passed-out drunk in an Anchor Point yard. The man told the troopers Waldal had given him dog the, but the troopers knew better, Waldal said.
“Everybody knows my dog,” he said.
“Where is that dog?”
He looked up from the windshield he was dabbing with a patch of plastic. It’s important, he said, to keep the oxygen out of the resin as it hardens.
“Yankee!,” he yelled. “Oh, I’m going to kill that dog.”
A pickup pulled behind the Bon’s. The woman inside said she was up from Homer shopping for the holidays and she wanted Waldal to patch her window before the crack cobwebbed. He does a good job, she said.
Waldal glanced at the truck. “What’s she doing?” he said. “I’m not doing no more. I’m froze. I’ve been out here all day. Jeez.”
He dabbed at the crack in the Bon’s windshield one last time, declared it fixed, packed up his kit and bungee corded his sign to the briefcase. Then he went to see about his dog.
He walked around to Petco — slow and rigid from the cold — and slipped through the automatic doors.
Minutes later a thick, black dog bounded out, a big puppy with an insulated blanket that hung from his neck and down his back like a cape.
Waldal grabbed the rope around the dog’s neck and let Yankee pull him through the snow bank to the parking lot, yelling: “Mush! Mush! Mush!”
He picked up his briefcase.
“They had him in the groomers bin,” he said, smiling.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.