A long, long time ago, Tom was a high school senior, looking for a college to attend. He was going to have to work to help his parents and sisters, so the college would have to be one to which he could commute. Fortunately, he lived in Southern California, where there are literally dozens of colleges, community and otherwise.
He enrolled at a nearby four-year college. He had been an OK football player in high school, so the college coach gave him a scholarship. It was only going to cost $500 for the entire school year, but he was grateful for any help he could get.
As football practice got underway a couple of weeks before school started, there were rumblings around campus that there was going to be trouble.
It was an era of protest and violence, of civil-rights marches and anti-war demonstrations.
Many of the black students at that college were outraged, claiming that the college was dragging its feet in minority-student recruitment. So, a couple of days before the start of school, the Black Student Union took over the administration building. They kicked all of the employees out of the building and ransacked the place, throwing thousands and thousands of pieces of paper out the windows.
Back in those days, everything was on paper; computers were in their infancy. "Some of the class assignments were handed out via the old computer punch cards, but for the most part, you had to have paperwork for everything," Tom recalls.
The campus was in complete turmoil. The administration didn't want a violent confrontation, so they decided to negotiate with the building occupiers. The stalemate dragged on for weeks. In the meantime, Tom started going to class, but he was informed that they didn't have a record of his tuition being paid. He told the coach, who said that all of the scholarship information had been sent to the administration building. For all he knew, his scholarship had gone out the window with that first frenzy.
Tom and others in similar circumstances went to a temporary office. They were told that even if the football coach sent over a list of scholarship players, there were still several intermediate steps that would have to be taken before everything would be OK.
He was getting ready to just pay the bill when somebody--although no one is exactly sure who or in what position--came up with an idea. The players could all take out student loans for the amount of their scholarships, get the money in a few days and then, when everything was back to normal on campus, the scholarship funds would just go to pay off the student loans.
"I thought it was somewhat convoluted, but I just went along."
Tom played football and went about his business. He ended up transferring to a different college. Several years later, he got a letter in the mail claiming that he owed the government $500, plus interest and penalties. He wrote them immediately and explained the situation.
"Then I started calling people and explaining things. I don't ever want to owe any money, but neither do I want to pay something I don't owe."
He recounted the story to whoever would listen. "They were skeptical, to say the least, especially about the administration building and the loan-for-scholarship arrangement. They insisted I get documentation to back up my story."
By then, there had been a complete turnover at the college, and records from that troubled time were sketchy, at best. He sent the government everything he could find and then didn't hear from them again for several years.
"About 10 years later, I get another letter. Now I owe nearly $1,500, they say. I go through the entire ritual again, and they leave me alone. For a while."
For the past couple of decades, it has popped up every three or four years. It's the same pattern, except now the gub'mint is using collection agencies. "That's the worst. These people are clods, and don't tell me they're just doing their jobs. They call real early on Sunday mornings, and they obviously don't believe a word I say. I'm assuming by now that my credit rating is in the negative numbers. I got so tired of it all, I actually offered to pay the $500 so they'd leave me alone."
He was told it was now more than $4,000.
"I told them to (perform an anatomically impossible act upon themselves)."
Still, he'd like to resolve it some day before he dies. Any suggestions?