Why I’m not an accountant

I think it was the Juicy Fruit, but it may have been the peanuts. I never was sure what made Dad so angry that evening. I really liked Juicy Fruit gum, and to make sure that I’d never go lacking, I’d bought two packs and left them on my dresser. The peanuts were the other possible culprits as my friends and I would buy a tube of Planters peanuts and pour them down the neck of our Pepsi bottle. Dad may have seen the peanut wrapper caught in the lint trap of the dryer. In any case, from that night on things changed around the Bradbury house.

Dad somehow found out about the way his boys were foolishly spending their money and came down with a new family edict: from this point onward each penny must be accounted for. My brother and I were given an allowance of 25 cents a week and Dad handed us each a small spiral-bound notebook in which we were to write down each purchase. I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but to give you an idea of the time frame, Pepsi was a nickel a glass, chewing gum was five cents as were the most gigantic candy bars. In fact, I can’t think of anything in my buying frenzy that cost over five cents. Maybe a hamburger. Oh … and the really big Baby Ruth candy bar, a gigantic log of chocolate which sat largely untouched in the display case at the Reed Brothers Grocery Store with the price tag of an entire dime. We’d look at it each night after school and do a bit of synchronized salivating, but I never knew anyone who actually bought one of the monsters.

So that was the financial situation in 1950s Pike County. A quarter could get you through the week if you were a little rascal who was careful with his money. But Dad also knew the value of two bits and he made us write everything down in our little notebooks. This posed a real problem for me. You see, I really wanted two packages of Juicy Fruit a week, but if I was to record that bit of extravagance in my notebook, then there’ll be hell to pay when Dad saw it. This is where I first learned to cook the books a bit and come up with false but ingenious ways to account for the other nickel … feeding homeless people on the streets of Perry, donating the money to UNICEF, contributing to the March of Dimes … none of these ruses worked very well since Perry had no homeless people, the UNICEF ploy only worked at Halloween, and you can’t give to the March of Dimes if you only have a nickel. It was at this point that I discovered I wasn’t creative enough to be dishonest. Instead of cheating on my bookkeeping, I had to change my buying habits, bite the bullet, and somehow limit myself to one package of Juicy Fruit gum per week. In those days we had no substance withdrawal programs so I was forced to deal with this on my own.

I think that this experience is what in later life has turned into a real dislike for numbers, for keeping records, for accounting, tallying up, reconciling and balancing columns of figures. I know that I’m not alone in my inability to reconcile my records with the bank’s, but my learning disability with numbers stretches far beyond my bank account. Give me letters and words and I can make something out of it, but give me numbers and I become a hopeless wreck, unable to juggle even the simplest sums.

If I was Bill Gates or Sam Walton, I could get away with this. I doubt that Bill or Sam ever got overdrawn on their bank account. It’s my guess that they could probably afford even three packages of Juicy Fruit. But as a college student, playing my cards close to my vest this became a problem, and you can’t hide being overdrawn when your dad is vice president of your bank. The saving grace is that he could throw in the necessary nickels to put my head above water when the teller in the next stall would whisper, “Elmer, he’s done it again.”

This malady of course makes me totally unable to do my income taxes. A sweet and brilliant CPA named Katie knows more about my finances than I do and that’s just fine with me. Numbers scare me and the further I can move myself from them, the better I can sleep at night. I sit across the desk from Katie during tax season and she asks me questions about receipts, balances, records and such. I do a lot of shrugging and Katie does a great deal of shaking her head. The good news: I am scrupulously honest in reporting my income. The Juicy Fruit incident made an honest man out of me.

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