The second half of January was typically the coldest time of the year in Bismarck, North Dakota, and 1955 was no exception. It was Saturday, and the temperature at noon had only reached -15F, after an overnight low of -30F, with the same expected the coming night.
At those low temperatures, the air can't hold much moisture, so it was usually sunny and clear. The sun warmed things up a bit, but everyone knew from long experience that after sunset, it would get a lot colder, and quickly.
Fortunately, there wasn't much of a wind. At about fifteen minutes before one, Sal Westerman, the eldery gentleman who was the unofficial leader of the Coffee and Cake Checker Club, bundled up for his walk to the Beacon Cafe, where the club met every Saturday afternoon.
"Don't forget your sunglasses!" his wife, Sylvia, called out as Sal was just about to open the front door. "There's a lot of glare off the snowbanks!"
"Thank you dear," Sal replied. "I'm all set."
As Sal went out and walked along, the snow on the sidewalks made the typical high pitched crunch characteristic of really cold weather. By the time Sal had walked the four blocks or so to the Beacon Cafe, his face was feeling a bit numb and his ears were cherry red. Uh-oh ... Sal wore a wool cap under his fedora, but he had forgotten to pull it down over his ears.
He pushed open the door and entered the Cafe. Deana, the proprietress, greeted him as always but immediately noticed his red ears. "Hey, Sal," she said, "do you have frostbite ears?"
"I'm afraid so," Sal replied, "I forgot to cover them."
Sal took a seat in the big booth at the back of the Cafe. He was a little early and was the first arrival. Deana brought over a steaming cup of coffee. "Warm yourself up, Sal," she said, "but not much we can do about your ears. You'll have to just grin and bear it. Want a couple of aspirin?"
Sal's ears now felt very hot, and were starting to throb. "I think so, Deana, thank you."
As Deana went back to her counter to get some aspirin and a cup of water, the "boys" --- all but one of them over age 50 --- started to arrive. Tom came in, followed by Dan, Wayne, and Sam. It was going to be a small group today; no doubt the cold weather kept some of the others away.
"Well, look at that," Wayne said, "Sal, you got frostbite ears!" He chuckled, but then added, "Sorry, I know it isn't really funny, but you should see yourself!"
Dan and the others added their own sympathetic remarks, tinged with a bit of teasing humor. Sal took his aspirin and kept drinking his coffee.
Deana came back to the booth and served coffee to all of the boys, who took the mugs eagerly. "I've got a nice winter treat," Deana said, "I made up some double chocolate fudge bars. They'll really warm your insides! And Sal, I'll give you one on the house just 'cause I feel kind of bad for you."
That was quite a moment. Deana was as good a businesswoman as she was a baker, and seldom gave freebies. However she quickly added, "The rest of you ... you're on your own!" She punctuated the remark with a hearty laugh.
"Well, boys, if Deana buys for me, how can you?" Sal asked. The tradition was that Sal would show the boys a checker problem. If they could solve it, Sal would buy for everyone, but if they couldn't, the boys would buy their own and also for Sal.
"Oh, that's easy," Sam said. "You just buy for us no matter!"
"Well, well, you've got me there," Sal said. "Okay, here's one for you. It's from my Pennsylvania checker pen-pal, Ed."
Sal set up the following position on one of the checkerboards.
"You know, Sal, the red pieces are the same color as your ears!" Dan said. But he didn't get a laugh, as the boys were already deep into analyzing the position on the board.
If you live in cold country, no doubt you know to keep your ears covered and your head warm on those really harsh winter days; and you'd likely rather be indoors with a hot cup of coffee, solving a checker problem. But whatever the current weather at your location, try out Sal's problem and then click on Read More to see the solution and the conclusion of our story.
Solution and Conclusion
After about 45 minutes or so, Sam announced that they had found a solution. He showed Sal the following play.
6-2---1 11-16---A,2 2-7 10-14---B 7-11 16-20 21-17 14-21 28-24 20-27 32-5 White Wins.
A---10-15 2-7 11-16 7-10 16-19 10-14 White Wins.
B---9-14 21-17 14-21 7-23 White Wins.
1---6-1 only draws.
2---10-14 2-7 11-16 7-11 transposes to the main line.
"Very good, boys," Sal said with as much spirit as he could, although despite the aspirin his ears were hurting fiercely. "I'll buy." He asked Deana for a big tray of double chocolate fudge bars and the boys heartily enjoyed them while continuing to talk checkers and play skittles.
A couple of hours passed. Sal enjoyed the time, as he always did, but his ears were still very painful. At around 4:30 PM, the sun started to set and the boys called it a day, wanting to get home before the temperature plummeted even further.
As Sal put on his winter coat, who came into the Beacon but his wife Sylvia! She had that look on her face, at once stern and sympathetic.
"Oh, Sal, look at your ears. What am I going to do with you?" Sylvia said. "Deana called and told me I really ought to give you a ride home. Come on, I've got the car running at the curb."
Sal waved to the boys and Deana, and said good night as he followed Sylvia to the waiting car. He was in for a couple of days of sore ears, and probably a bit of a lecture, too. But he'd be better by the next Saturday and ready for more checkers.
Today's problem is called Cordial Reception and is by the late grandmaster composer Ed Atkinson. Lettered notes are by Ed and numbered notes are by your editor.
Addendum: There's a difference between frostbite and frostnip. Frostbite is far more serious. Sal was actually suffering from frostnip, which is largely superficial and doesn't involve freezing of the flesh itself. The boys and Deana called it frostbite instead of frostnip because that's the common usage.
However, frostnip is no fun and is best avoided. The symptoms as described in the story aren't 100% accurate, having been modified a bit for the sake of the narrative.