IN MY YOUTH, when I still thought men could be reformed, I taught a weekly literature class to prisoners in a Michigan penitentiary. There I met a remarkable man who had no fear of the Internal Revenue Serviec. I never met another such. He was a forger, a sweet man with a boundless faith in the generosity and forgiving nature of mankind. A fool as well as a felon, of course.

It has been nearly 10 years now, but I shudder still: We, my wife and I, were audited.

I had the misfortune one year to make what was for me a great deal of money -- so much, in fact, that my friendly H&R Block tax consultant told me that I must pay an enormous sum in addition to what I had already paid. This dreadful news came in the following year, of course, when we were so poor that we could have qualified for food stamps. Such roller coaster family economics must be the lot of many -- farmers, auto workers, the Hunt brothers -- but I have since been told that nothing so alerts the IRS, sends flags flying and alarm bells ringing, and so arouses the killer instincts of its agents as erratic levels of income. "Normal"people, law-abiding folks, have steady incomes, like the IRS bureaucrats themselves.

When the notice from the IRS arrived, announcing that there were some questions they wanted to ask about my income tax form, I did what every God-fearing, righteous, thoroughly honest taxpayer would do: I panicked.

Ruth, my gallant, courageous and foolish spouse, told me to fear naught, for she would handle the entire matter. After all, it was no big deal: Didn't H&R Block advertise that if there was any problem he would be at our side at the IRS and explain all? I went on my knees and kissed the hem of her blue jeans.

Confidently, Ruth picked up the telephone and dialed the number of the storefront office H&R had used during the tax season. (We had been in Europe for the previous 11 years; we had simply signed where we were told to sign.) The storefront tax office had, naturally, closed in May. I believe I fainted.

Courageously and persistently, Ruth telephoned until she tracked down H&R Block's regional office in Baltimore -- a remote city of which we knew little. I was catatonic. However, it was finally arranged that she would meet a man in Falls Church. She did; the nice man said he would go with her on any day the IRS bureaucrat would talk with her. An appointment was arranged. Then for three days -- three days of tension and fear as far as I was concerned -- she went off each morning to sit in the interrogation room of the Internal Revenue Service. I made rapid strides towards becoming an alcoholic.

Each evening, when Ruth returned from the IRS, I hid the remains of my bitten fingernails and the scotch bottles and, summoning all my cool, calmly asked how the tax business was progressing. Her answers, always the same, did not reassure me. She sat silent while the tax consultant and the IRS man talked. It was, she said, rather like a tennis match, for she turned her head from one to the other as they spoke; and, like a tennis match as far as she was concerned, she understood nothing.

On the fourth and final morning I went with her to the dreaded IRS office and met the dreadful young IRS agent who was causing me such distress. Throughout this terrible ordeal, I clung to a statement I had often heard quoted, that the IRS wanted every penny due to the United States Government, but not one cent more. Surely I could not be sent to prison for honest mistakes made by H&R Block -- at last not for long: 10 years maybe.

At last, when all the arcane conversation was finished, when all the numbers had been added and subtracted and my gross personal income recomputed, it was determined that not only had we paid all of the taxes we should have, but we had paid $3 more. Then came the most illusion-shattering experience of my life: The smiling IRS man offhandedly asked us to forget it, for it would cost the government $100 in paperwork to repay us. Shameful to confess, I was so relieved that I consented.

Such an experience with such a happy ending might have quieted the fears of even the most paranoid of taxpayers, but this was soon followed by another happy experience which caused the paranoia to linger. The tax expert who told us we owed the additional enormous sum was not the same as the tax expert who computed our tax the following year, the year of our poverty. The latter concluded that we had overpaid the year before by about $8,000; he made out a form requesting a refund and, trembling, I signed it. Shortly after the IRS audit, a letter arrived from the IRS. Sweating and fumbling, I tore open the letter and a check tumbled to the floor, a check for the $8,000 plus interest computed at 6 percent. There was no letter of explanation. The IRS had, it seemed, simply agreed that we had overpaid.

It was all perfectly legal, of course. So I am told. My first tax expert had merely made a mistake which the IRS officials instantly recognized -- when it was pointed out to them. Still I shuddered. And I continued to shudder, fearing every day that the IRS would say it was all a terrible mistake and that I must repay the money plus 20 percent interest. Now, at last, I can relax. Seven years have passed and I believe (let no one correct me if I am wrong) that the statute of limitations saves me from ever worrying again -- until April 15.