Friday, April 13, 2007 - Burlington TheTimesNews - "A story while you're waiting to pay your taxes"

April 13, 2007 - 3:12PM
By Jay Ashley/Times-News

A story while you're waiting to pay your taxes

Those of us who toil in the salt mines to pay Uncle Sam his tribute for keeping us free to be stupid have two more days to make sure we get the check in the mail.Jay Ashley.jpg (7729 bytes)

April 15, today, is a free ride because it’s Sunday. April 16 is another free ride because it’s Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C.

Aha, bet you never even heard of Emancipation Day unless it figures into the tax deadline. On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed over 3,000 slaves in the District of Columbia. This became the only instance of compensation by the federal government for enslaved people. Ever since then, the people have been paying money back to keep the federal government in chips and salsa. If you stretch the dictionary, you can put compensation and reparations in the same sentence, but it would be tough to diagram. This would lead to a whole other level of conversation that would inevitably end up with someone asking whatever happened to the 40 acres and a mule they were promised during the Civil War. Can you imagine what would happen if everyone who had a mule coming to them actually got one? Could this be the harbinger of a new mass transit scheme? Would Francis the Talking Mule movies make a comeback? No, they would become more personal property to pay taxes on.

As a boy, I remember all the men of the community coming to my father’s store to “give in” taxes. Each property owner would be quizzed by a tax lister about his possessions. Personal property was taxed. Livestock was taxed. Tractors and combines and haybalers and pretty much anything you owned had a personal property value as did the land and house

This listing was held in January and like the Biblical journey of Mary and Joseph, the citizens all went up from the land of their dwelling to a place where a tax lister sat at a card table and drew up an accounting of the chattel and real property so tax bills could go out in the fall.

Because the tax man was at the store, where men in the community gathered to perform important tasks like matching for drinks, comparing rain-gauge readings or debating the merits of varieties of seed corn, the man listing his property was usually pretty honest, albeit circumspect. You don’t want everyone knowing your business, but it’s OK if you know someone else’s business.

It’s a man’s nature to resent accounting to anyone else the who, what, when, where, why and how of his existence, much less his stuff and what someone else thinks it’s worth. Talk philosophy and economics all you want, but the bottom line for most men is “it’s none of your business,” or as their children would chant while skipping rope, “none of your beeswax, cornbread and shoe tacks.”

So, if you choose to keep your nose out of your neighbor’s business, you turn to playing checkers, honing your Old Timer on a whetstone, or listening to a tale.

And so today, I want to tell a story you might have heard if you were sitting around a warm January stove waiting for your turn at the tax man’s card table.

I have a friend I must disguise as Eli. He’s a real guy, a grand fellow, and he used to have muscles on top of his muscles because he worked for Pepsi. He worked our store and he spent his days hefting heavy wooden crates filled with real, glass bottles of Pepsi. 24 bottles of 12-ounce plus the fluid and the weight of the crate. You do the math. I don’t do math on Sunday. Don't forget to account for him doing this backbreaking work in the snow and heat and rain.

Eli had a friend I will call Norman for the purpose of the story. I have to grant anonymity on occasion or else my friends would never tell me stories or give me great quotes like the lady who told me this week she would never wear uncomfortable clothing “unless it takes 100 pounds off me.”

Anyway, before he was the Pepsi man he was a regular teenager who one night conspired with Norman to steal watermelons. Norman went one way in his truck and Eli went another in his.

By and by Eli was at the designated post-theft rendezvous spot when Norman came up watermelon-less.

“Where’re your melons?” Eli asked.

Norman was thoroughly momicked. “You won’t believe this. I had to crawl through three sets of fences, barbed wire, electric and chicken wire, just to get to the patch. Then I had to tote two melons out, one under each arm. I dropped one when I fell in a gulley and busted it in the dark. When I finally got back to the truck and broke open the other one, the meat was all yellow and ruint.”

“Ruint? Did you taste it?”

“Naw, it was all yeller. It wasn’t ripe.”

“You idjit,” Eli informed his friend, “They make a yellow-meat melon. My uncle grows some and he?. Hey, where did you get that melon?”

Yep, you guessed it already. Norman stole the melon from Eli’s uncle’s patch.

But Eli laughs when he tells the story, because he stole his melon from Norman’s grandpa’s patch.

So, make sure you pay the tax man this year and don’t get sidetracked by storytellers. And remember, if you’re going to rob Peter to pay Paul, make sure you get a receipt.

Jay Ashley is managing editor of the Times-News. He awaits watermelon season at

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