The tax man is always waiting

Welcome home.

Whenever I see those words scrawled across the banners draped like bunting across highway overpasses for returning servicemen and women these days, I have to smile.

I smile because they make me think of my father when he was a young man, 31, coming back to Rhode Island after nearly four years in the Navy.

It was January 1946, and the demobilization of the millions of American men and women who had served their country during World War II was continuing, making for countless joyous reunions and countless marches down the aisle. It was a bumper year for weddings and the dawn of the baby boomer generation.

Not long after he came back to Providence, my father bumped into my mother (a longtime friend of his family’s) while waiting for a bus in front of the Gladding’s Department Store. They fell in love and within months my dad was making plans for marriage even though he was trying to get by on the shoestring budget of a young veteran.

For years, my sister and I didn’t know much more about my dad and World War II than that love story that we made him tell over and over.

My sister and I didn’t know about the series of events that he referred to as “The Three Letters Incident.” And we didn’t know about the documents he kept clipped together and tucked away in his desk as a constant reminder of the rather “special” welcome home he received from one arm of the government.

A few years ago I was, once again, pressing him for more details about his World War II days and how he married mama shortly after his return when he said, “Didn’t I ever tell you about the letters?”

“Let me show you something.” he said, dipping into his meticulous files to pull out a typewritten letter on thin paper marked with the heading: The Secretary of the Navy.

Apparently a missive sent to all returning Navy veterans, it began grandly with, “My Dear Mr. Polichetti: I have addressed this letter to reach you after all the formalities of your separation from active service are completed. … I want the Navy’s pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civilian life and remain with you always.”

The letter, dated Jan. 31, 1946, goes on to remind my dad that he served “in the greatest Navy in the world,” and that for his part he deserved to “be proud as long as you live.”

“The Nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude,” it states just above the signature of James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy.

I remember being impressed and saying something like, “Gee, Daddy, that’s great.”

“I thought so too at first,” my dad replied. “But wait, there’s more.”

The second document he produced was something else every returning service man received, and was impressive with its Presidential seal and looping calligraphy. It brought m y father the “heartfelt thanks of a grateful Nation” and bore the signature of President Harry S Truman.

“Why didn’t you ever frame this?” I asked.

“I wanted to, but there’s more. You’ll see,” he said, pulling another letter from his desk drawer.

This, too, was from the government, but it had been hand-delivered to my dad just days before his November 1946 wedding. At the time my father was working at Low Plumbing Supply when the government showed up in the person of one Mr. Sweeney.

Mr. Sweeney worked for the Providence office of the Internal Revenue Service, and he had not come to extend more thanks from “a grateful nation.” Instead, Sweeney was there to put my father on notice that he owed the IRS $87.43 from wages he earned before the war and to warn him that unless he came up with the money, the IRS was going to attach his pay.

My father was horrified and embarrassed. If his prospective father-in-law got wind of the debt, it would carry a stigma and make for choice gossip at the wedding reception.

He explained all this to Sweeney and pointed out that during his three years, nine months and 28 days in the Navy, the IRS had never managed to send him a delinquency notice.

As my dad tells it, Mr. Sweeney listed patiently as if he understood, but at the end just shook his head. The IRS paperwork was in place and the groom-to-be was going to have his pay attached unless he came up with the money on the spot.

“Eight-seven dollars? Are you kidding? I don’t have that kind of money,” was my father’s dismayed response. He finally persuaded Mr. Sweeney to take $10 in cash with the promise that he would pay the balance by Dec. 1.

My parents’ quiet weekday wedding went off without a hitch. No word of scandal or debt was breathed. But my dad could never quite relax enough on their honeymoon to enjoy the thundering beauty of Niagara Falls because the payment arrangement struck with Mr. Sweeney dangled like the sword of Damocles above his head.

After re turning home, he found a way to scrounge up the balance and showed up at the IRS offices in Providence on Nov. 27 to pay the remaining $77.43. Mr. Sweeney accepted the payment and issued my father a receipt with the word “PAID” stamped in large red letters.

My parents have been married nearly 62 years, and my father says he doesn’t hold a grudge against the IRS.

Still, the letters from the Navy and Truman were never framed as planned, and my father still isn’t taking any chances.

Every tax season he carefully takes the signed receipt from 1946 and moves it forward to the current year’s tax folder. The letters from Truman and Forrestal go along, too.

If anyone asks any questions, he’s got proof.

Proof of an old debt paid to the IRS.

Proof of service gladly given to a grateful nation.

(Reach Barbara Polichetti at Bpoliche(at)projo.com.)

4 Responses to "The tax man is always waiting"

  1. bryan mcclellan  February 2, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    TEARS and more TEARS ,is all I can say.

  2. LurkingFromTheLeft  February 3, 2008 at 12:23 am

    And we wonder –

    …why are nation and world is so eff’d up –

    …here’s proof –

    …yet ExxonMobil can make 40B and will soon claim that is NOT enough –

    …my admiration to your father, your family, and to you for sharing this story with us –

    LFTL

  3. Ted Remington  February 3, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    In all likelihood, the tax debt was deferred because of legislation called the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act. It protects service members from attachments, garnishments, repossessions, foreclosures, etc., durng their term of service.

    Many years ago when I lived in the DC area there was chronicled in the local papers the story of a man who owed the IRS some money, and which the IRS was going to collect via an auction of this guy’s chattels. They actually published a classified ad in the Washington Star (anyone else remember this paper?) that had a drawing of a man in a barrel at the top of the ad. I kid you not. And guess what? The cost of the ad went into his debt!

    Anyway, the guy went in to see the agent, threw up his hands and said, “What the hell do you want me to do? The IRS agent reached out and grabbed his left arm and said, “Well, for starters, I am seizing this wristwatch.”

    All in all, the IRS guy your father dealt with was only a little bit more reasonable that the story I relate above, but I do have to wonder if there might not have been some collection efforts leading up to the threat of garnisheeing his wages.

    Some years ago I was taking care of my father’s personal affairs, and I filed his tax return wherein, at the age of 80 something, he claimed head of household status because he had living under his roof my brother, who had been unable to work his whole adult life. The IRS called me in for an audit and asked me to prove that my brother was indeed dependent on his father for a roof over his head. The agent said, “How do I know your brother is not paying for his room and board?” I responded, “Here’s his SSAN. Look for yourself and you will see that he has never filed a tax return because he has never had a job.”

    The agent then said, “Well, he could be paying your father out of a savings account. You are going to have to prove thta your brother never paid your father for his room and board!”

    “How do I prove a negative?” I asked. The agent actually said to me, “You know, I don’t understand that phrase, but I do hear it pretty often.” At that point I shut my mouth, picked up my papers, and walked out, since I did not want her to inquire into the last 8 years of tax returns in which my father had been granted head of household status. When your government asks you to prove a negative you know that 1984 has arrived.

    Ted

  4. CheckerboardStrangler  February 4, 2008 at 11:08 am

    How is it that we can ignore candidates like Ron Paul who repeatedly demonstrate that it is indeed possible to run this country without an IRS or a Federal Reserve, and yet we still complain about the arrogance of these illegal entities sitting like a canker on our tongues?

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