Jerry Nelson: A taxing season

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

During this season there are three small words that cause cries of anguish to echo across this great land of ours, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with Styrofoam. Those three words are, of course, “It’s tax time!”

Tax time shouldn’t be at all taxing for a responsible person. A responsible person would systematically keep track of all their income and deductions. By this metric, I am not a responsible person.

This is because dealing with massive quantities of numbers causes my eyes to glaze over. My head also begins to feel hot, as if it were about to catch fire. I must swiftly leave the scene whenever I am confronted by a large number of numbers for fear that my head might spontaneously combust. I am simply looking out for the safety of innocent bystanders.

When I was a young dairyman, we hired a local farmer/accountant guy named Leland Schlimmer to prepare our income taxes. As Leland shuffled through my shoe box full of receipts, cancelled checks and old candy wrappers, he asked how many dependents my wife and I would be claiming.

It just so happened that our oldest son had arrived the previous year. He didn’t live with us the entire year, though. He was born shortly after Christmas, so I assumed that he could only be claimed as 6/365th of a dependent.

Leland then made the sort of statement that can bring tears of joy to a weary taxpayer’s eyes.

“If he didn’t live with you, who did he live with?” Leland said. “I think he was your dependent for the entire year.”

Thanks to Leland, we claimed our son as a full dependent without having to worry about any convoluted mathematics involving his birth date.

One year – this was an outlier experience, by the way – we had to write a big check to the IRS. Leland soothed us with words of comfort and wisdom.

“I never complain about paying income tax,” he said. “It means that I made money that year.”

It was hard to argue with that, but it didn’t reduce the sting of signing that check.

My father-in-law, Dale DeBoer, was an IRS agent for 30 years. Dale often volunteered to prepare our taxes, but the idea made me squirm. It felt like having one person serve as your judge, jury and tax assessor.

Not that we had anything to hide, mind you. But still, would you be OK with letting your father-in-law paw through your financial underwear drawer?

Dale retired from the IRS and we eventually agreed to let him prepare our tax returns. The day came when having an ex-IRS agent on our side proved extremely useful.

Out of the blue, the IRS sent us a letter which stated that we owed them a bunch of money. We’re talking about a sum that was larger than the gross national product of Lithuania. It was more than our dairy farming operation made in a year.

We rushed the letter to Dale. He dashed off a scathing rejoinder to his ex-employer, saying that this was a bunch of hooey and that they should immediately delete the alleged back taxes and their accompanying interest and penalties.

It must have worked because we haven’t heard a peep from the IRS in the many years since.

I observed Dale a few times as he worked on our taxes. He was able to navigate the sea of bizarre and obscure government forms with ease. He seemed to experience genuine joy when everything added up and all of the sums matched. This skill is a total mystery to me, akin to a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. Except that if a magician fails to produce the correct rabbit, he isn’t subject to penalties and interest.

Maybe it’s just her German sense of order, but my wife seems to have inherited her father’s ability to face rows and columns of numbers without breaking into a cold sweat. As such, she is in charge of our household’s bookkeeping. I am especially happy with this arrangement as it eliminates the risk of my head exploding.

After a number of years, Dale decided to retire from his tax preparation service. As he handed over his copies of our files, he gave me a parting gift.

It was a cocktail umbrella affixed to a small wooden disc. Beneath the umbrella, driven into the wooden disc, were several brass brads.

I puzzled over the thing for a moment, then asked, “What is this?”

“Can’t you see?” Dale replied with an impish grin, “It’s a tacks shelter!”

Jerry Nelson