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By Staff | Apr 1, 2011

That time of year has come once again when we Americans hear a phrase that causes us to collectively wince and squirm.

And no, it doesn’t involve the word “colonoscopy”.

The words that cause us to shriek and recoil like a vampire in the noontime sun are: “It’s tax time!”

Tax time is especially bothersome at our house. This is because my wife and I have diametrically opposite systems for bookkeeping.

My wife, being of German descent, has a strong affinity for order and organization. Nothing delights her more than when the columns and lines all add up tidily, producing a neat, predetermined sum.

I, on the other hand, use the patented “shoebox” system of organization invented by me many years ago. My idea of balancing the books is when, by some miracle, my tottering pile of receipts doesn’t topple over.

One doesn’t have to look far to see where my wife got her passion for numerical neatness. After all, her late father worked for the IRS.

Yes, the IRS, as in Internal Revenue Service. This information was sprung upon me out of the blue one evening about 30 years ago when I went to visit my then-girlfriend.

I had gone to call on her at her place and discovered that she had visitors. “This is my father, Dale,” she said, adding casually – almost as afterthought! – “He works for the IRS.”

A vast number of guilt tsunamis swiftly washed over me. I tried to keep my cool as I shook Dale’s hand while the inner me shouted “It’s not my fault! I honestly thought that all that stuff for my birthday party was tax deductible!

“And I’m sorry that I claimed the dog as a dependent! And none of my Holsteins has actually attended college!”

But before I could throw myself at his feet and begin to grovel for mercy and beg to be assigned to a “country club” penitentiary, Dale put me at ease.

It turned out that he was a genuinely nice guy who grew up on a farm and thus understood the vagaries of agricultural accounting.

Dale changed many of my perceptions regarding the IRS and its agents. For instance, I had assumed that all IRS agents carried in their briefcases medieval torture implements that were used to levy “penalties” and extract “late fees”.

Nope! All Dale had in his briefcase was some papers and a calculator. Pretty harmless looking stuff, but no doubt dangerous in the skilled hands of a highly-trained professional accountant such as Dale.

I got to know Dale better as time rolled by and he began to share the occasional “war story” from his long career as an IRS agent.

I was excited to hear these stories, albeit a bit disappointed that none of them involved any Tommy gun shootouts with an Al Capone-like figure.

But they were entertaining nonetheless.

For instance, Dale once told how he and a young IRS agent were sent out to inspect some bins full of grain that the government had come to own.

The young agent scrambled up the ladder, peered into the top of the bin and pronounced, “Yup, full!”

Dale, sensing that something was amiss, began to toss pebbles at the steel structure. The pebbles made a strangely hollow sound as they bounced off the side of the bin.

Further investigation revealed that the bin had been stuffed with bales of straw; a thin layer of grain was then put on top to create the illusion that the bin was full. This just proved what I had always thought, namely, that if crooks put as much effort into making an honest living as they do at crime they would likely pull down a fairly decent income.

Most of Dale’s stories weren’t as exciting as the grain bin incident. The vast majority of them had to do with labyrinthine audits and skeevy characters trying to claim some bizarre deductions.

What really got Dale’s goat, though, was taxpayers who showed up for audits with shoeboxes full of disorganized tax records.

“Yeah,” I would say, “I hate those kind of people.”

I didn’t feel the least bit hypocritical about that statement. After all, I had by then graduated to storing my records in boot boxes and milk crates.

The time finally came when Dale trusted me enough to show me one of his most prized possessions. It was a small wooden umbrella-like structure that had several brads driven into its base.

After puzzling over the knick-knack for a few moments, I gave up. “What is it?” I asked.

“Don’t you see?” replied Dale with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s a tacks shelter!”

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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