By Naomi Klouda
David Waldal is particularly thankful this year for the good companionship of his part husky, part Lab named Yankee.
“I got him from a litter right there at Safeway — they were giving them away in front of the store. He was born around Thanksgiving, but I didn’t get him until Christmas,” Waldal recalls.
The awkward, bouncing black pup soon became a familiar sight around town, in Homer and Soldotna, waiting patiently while his master fixes windshields for a living.
Usually, the waiting place is Fred Meyer, in Soldotna, or Safeway, in Homer, right back where Yankee began his worldly sojourn.
“I’d say he gets pet or hugged about 100 times a day,” Waldal said. “He comes home so full of food, I have no idea what treats people are giving him.”
One passerby confessed on a recent visit that she didn’t happen to have a dog treat for Yankee, but usually she doesn’t come empty-handed when saying hello to the “most famous dog in Homer.”
Waldal’s a familiar sight himself. A man dressed in an Army coat who walks everywhere he goes, carrying his windshield repair kit. For several years, he didn’t have a dog after the one he had got run over when he lived in Ketchikan.
“It takes awhile to find the right one,” he said. “He has to be a cold-weather dog. He has to be an outdoor dog. And he has to be a friendly dog.”
That’s because Waldal works with the public and he chooses to live in a tent all winter, outside. Curled up inside at night, he and Yankee can hear the coyotes howl. Waldal uses good-quality outdoor gear to make sure he keeps warm. Unfettered from renting an apartment, Waldal feels free to leave Homer if he wants to, to go to Soldotna and repair windows for a while there. But usually, he likes to settle down in Homer for the more mild winter than can be had elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula. He once spent a winter in Fairbanks.
“I camped in a tent there, too. It was cold,” he said.
Waldal says that hitching rides with people to get to where he wants to go is made easier, not more difficult, with Yankee along. He’s a friend magnet. Everywhere the two go, Yankee gets a lot of attention. In manner, he’s a gentlemanly dog, unfailingly greeting every person. He minds well, even though he’s still got a lot of eager pup in him.
Good thing, too. Waldal puts in a lot of miles in the course of a year. At the end of winter, windshields in Soldotna and Kenai are beat up from the spread of gravel on ice or snow.
“A snow tire can fling gravel really good,” he said.
He’s kept busy on the central Kenai Peninsula for a month and when he runs out of customers, he travels up to Valdez in time for the Winnebago traffic arriving from the Alaska Highway.
“I specialize in motor homes. Those are some expensive windshields,” he said.
Business is brisk in Valdez while the traffic runs, then at some point, if it turns slow, he and Yankee can decide to go anywhere on the road system.
Currently, Waldal has two windshield repair kits, a trade he learned after attending programs in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and in Las Vegas. It offered stable work at the end of a long career repairing logging equipment.
Waldal, now 50, was raised among a big family in Wisconsin. He joined the U.S. Army at the age of 18 and served from 1978-84, much of it in Germany near the Czechoslovakia border during the Cold War. He was trained as an Army scout, he said. Back in the U.S., he worked for a time for the U.S. Forest Service, fostering a love of the outdoors. Then, in Idaho, he worked in the logging industry as a mechanic on heavy equipment.
“Excellent work, but pretty soon there just weren’t any more jobs,” he said.
A vacation trip to Alaska 22 years ago landed him in Ketchikan. Within two days of being off the ferry, he had a job working for the Ketchikan Pulp Mill. But that mill closed down in the mid-1990s, so again Waldal was out of work. He never married or had children, which meant he was free to explore other options. About 10 years ago, he took up windshield repair work.
“I can get work anywhere I want to go,” he said.
Cracked windshields is a near epidemic problem made worse by Alaskans’ habit of warming up their vehicles before scraping off all the frost and snow.
“This time of year, when you clean your windshields, you have to get rid of the frost and snow. Scrape it all off before you turn on your defrost,” he said. “Frost and snow will accumulate under the window blades and that’s all it takes — hot then cold, to cause further cracking, especially when it’s snowing.”
Waldal saves people money and misery by bolstering the dot-sized cracks before they spider out across the windshield, he said. It takes him about 20 minutes. He’s looking into a new windshield repair kit that is a lot more expensive and contains upgraded equipment to work on two cracks at once.
The disadvantage of winter repair work is the shortage of light. Waldal needs the white light of a bright day in the hours between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to see his careful work. That’s when people will see him and Yankee hanging out where cars go to park, like Safeway or Save U More. They’re good places to set up shop, especially since so many people greet them and stop to exchange words about the day, he said.
For Thanksgiving, Waldal plans on taking Yankee and going to the Refuge Chapel to eat with folks there.
“The food is good, and the company is good,” he said.
And it’s Yankee’s birthday. His faithful companion turns 1. Given their relatively unsheltered outdoor life and dangers they’ve faced over the past year, that’s something for which Waldal feels thankful.
“He really is a great dog,” he said. “I think most people who notice him know it.”