Zero the Hero; or, From Factory Worker to Superhero in Sixty Days
By Phillip Howerton
The orientation for my new job consisted of the supervisor handing me a hardhat, telling me I was required to wear white, and showing me how to operate the time clock. At 4:30 the next morning, March 4, 1984, I began my first day of work at Mid-America Dairymen in Lebanon, Missouri. Everything had fallen into place. Life lay before me as clear and structured as a long hallway with an exit at the far end. I was twenty-one and recently married, and I had landed one of the few union jobs in town.
The pay was good and the work was simple. I was to unload and wash the bulk trucks that delivered raw milk from the local farms. Machines performed most of the work; electronic pumps transferred the milk from trucks to storage tanks, and the sprayers inserted in the manhole atop the trucks washed, rinsed, and sanitized the emptied tanks. Yet, it was wet and dirty work. The walls and floors had to be scrubbed daily, and dozens of pipes, hoses, and pumps had to be disassembled and washed by hand. Occasionally I would get a milk bath; that is, a milk line would vibrate apart at a connection, or a hose would burst and drench me with cold milk, and I would spend the rest of the day smelling like bad cheese. The trucks were always covered with dirt or mud or snow from the country roads, and when they crowded together in the unloading bay, I had to wedge between them to climb the ladders to the manholes. At the end of the day, I was soaked with water and milk and my white uniform was stained with dirt, mud, and butterfat.
And this work didn’t stay done. The trucks were unloaded and washed each day only to return the next, and the work had no purpose beyond a paycheck. There were no honors or awards, no chance for promotion, no sense of accomplishment, and no marketable skills to learn. The only recognition I received during the fourteen years was a memo congratulating me for ten years of service—and this memo was delivered to me by being stapled to my paycheck eight months after the anniversary of my hiring. As do all hourly wage workers, I watched the clock, and the hours turned into days, and the days turned into years. One of my co-workers, a white-headed, taciturn man in his sixties, watched the clock for forty-one years before retiring.
I worked this job a couple of years before I started to feel sharp pangs of discontent. Some of my co-workers were like shadows as they performed the same tasks and mumbled the same complaints day upon day, season after season. I thought that there had to be more to life than working this repetitious, meaningless job. But for someone who had blown off high school and lived in a small town in the Ozarks, such a job was not easy to walk away from. It was one of the best-paying jobs in the area, and it offered life and health insurance, paid vacations, and overtime pay. Also, the work didn’t follow me home. I could punch out and leave the job until the next day. And while I was on the clock, the job did not own me; it was a mindless task, and I disassociated myself from the work. Although my body was there, my mind was often elsewhere.
I started going to the public library on my lunch hour to browse through a variety of books, trying to find something that interested me. One day I noticed a poster on the library’s bulletin board advertising correspondence courses offered by the University of Missouri-Columbia. I decided to enroll in American History 101: Discovery to 1865, and I told myself that if I did well in this course, I would enroll in others. It was not an easy decision. I had been out of high school for seven years, had a full-time job, and had started a small beef-farming operation. I wasn’t sure that I had the time, money, or brains to do college—especially if I still did not know what I wanted to do with an education. However, going back to school in this manner would allow me to keep my job and take action to improve myself.
On June 30, 1998, I was laid off from this factory. I was thirty-six and recently divorced, and I believed that I had wasted approximately fourteen years working a dead-end job and nursing a dead-end marriage. The company was closing its Lebanon plant and had announced that production would be reduced and that approximately twenty people would be laid off each month until closure was achieved in mid-December. There were one hundred and fifteen production employees, and although I had more seniority than sixty-three of my co-workers, I volunteered to be the first to leave. Many of them had spent their entire working lives at the plant and were going to stay until the last possible moment ever hoping management might reverse its decision and gave them their livelihood back. After I left, twenty people received the proverbial pink slip in their paycheck at the end of each month, and the workers who remained would study the seniority list to calculate how much time they had left.
But I had jumped ship. It was sinking, and there were no lifeboats. All my coworkers were eventually forced to make a job change, but I had decided to make a life change. Besides taking correspondence courses, I had been attending evening college for nine years, often making a hundred-mile trip to campus at least twice each week after I got off work. I had earned a bachelor’s in history and had almost completed a master’s in education.
The school year was fast approaching, and I decided that I would take the first job in education that I could find. I was soon called in for an interview for a position as an assistant librarian at an elementary school. The superintendent told me that the pay was $10,000 for a nine-month contract and that the duties included “anything that needs to be done—whether it’s working in the library, filling in for an absent teacher, or mopping up puke in the lunchroom.” All of this sounded refreshing, and I eagerly signed on. I then volunteered to start a week early so that I could meet the librarian, learn the library’s computer program, and help organize the stacks.
Although my primary duty was to scan and shelve books, I had plenty of time to work with the kids. I helped them find books, read to them, showed them how to do research on a computer, and helped them with their assignments. While on recess duty I pushed them on the swings and on the merry-go-rounds, played kick ball with the older boys, and turned one end of the long jump rope for the girls. On lunch duty I opened milk boxes, wiped up spills, and passed out “seconds” to kids who ate everything on their plate. On hallway duty I rubbed up black marks with the toe of my shoe, and, like Tom Sawyer and his whitewashing, I soon convinced several kids that wiping up black marks was fun. I was determined to be an incessant source of nonsense and laughter, and that was easy to accomplish. Compared to the vocational purgatory I had been in for fourteen years, I felt like I was in a theme park. Although my paycheck was one-third of what it had been, I was satisfied with the way I spent each day, and I looked forward to going to work every morning.
One day while I was at my computer scanning in a stack of returned books, Principal Smith, a heavyset, middle-aged man and a tenacious micro-manager, paraded in and stopped in front of my desk.
“Mr. Howerton. We didn’t inform you of all of your duties when we interviewed you. We need you to be Zero,” he said while seeming to focus all his attention upon toying with the small brass bell that we kept on the counter.
“And what is Zero?”
He paused as though suppressing a cough or chuckle, and then said in his principal tone, “Zero is a hero, and he visits the kinder-garten classrooms on the number of school days ending with zero. The tenth day of school, the twentieth, and so on. The costume is in the supply room here in the library. You need to meet with the kinder-garten teachers and schedule the day and time you will do this.”
At the end of the day I rummaged through the dusty boxes in the library’s supply room and found a large and silky one-piece blue suit, tailored much like a clown suit, with a zipper up the back and a large white zero on its chest, a red cape with another white zero, a two-piece mask made of newspaper and plaster of Paris painted a smooth, glossy blue with red wings on the ears—and a bicycle air horn. I then realized the principal’s evil plan. Except for the custodians and a coach, he was the only male in the school. He may have viewed me as some sort of challenge to his authority, so he was attempting to humiliate me. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider to become Spiderman. Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents and then trained to become Batman. Superman came from a faraway world to become a hero on this planet of the yellow sun. I was a former Teamster simply wanting to shelve children’s books in peace, but I was being forced to wear a clown suit.
While on lunch duty the next day, I slipped in beside the three kindergarten teachers at their table and interrupted their ravioli and chatter.
“I have a couple of questions. Who is Zero and what is he supposed to do?”
They immediately hushed and glanced questioningly at one another. Then Mrs. Wells, a thirty-year veteran, answered in a soft, coy voice as though she was answering a child’s inquiry about human reproduction, “Why, Zero is from another world and no one knows who he is.”
The other two giggled, and one added, “That’s right. No one knows who Zero is.”
Then Mrs. Wells asked seriously, “Why do you want to know?”
“Smith said that it is part of my job description.”
They were thrilled. They said Zero was a lot of fun but that Smith had refused to do it the year before and that they had been forced to take turns.
As they explained it, Zero’s duties were simple. He was to visit the kindergarten classrooms on zero days. The three kindergarten classes would gather in one classroom, and Zero would bring them a small edible treat shaped like a zero. Every snack he brought had served as something else in Zeroland and became edible only when Zero crossed into our world. The children had to discover what the snack had been in the other world before they were allowed to eat it. The main problem was that Zero had no mouth and could not speak, so the kids had to discover what the snack had been by playing twenty questions while Zero answered by honking the goose horn once for “No” and twice for “Yes.”
I had to get back to lunch duty, for a group of kids was leaving and I needed to wipe up crumbs and spills. I told the teachers to let me know when they wanted me to make an appearance. They said, “This will be fun.” “The kids will enjoy this so much.” “This is sweet of you.”
On my first visit as Zero the kids weren’t certain what to make of the six-feet-four alien in a silky blue suit, with red cape and a blue head, and honking a bicycle horn. Some giggled, some sat very silent, some whimpered, but they soon figured out that Zero was a bearer of treats and that the peppermint Lifesavers had been roller skate wheels in Zeroland. An hour later, as the kindergarten class filed into the lunchroom, several of the kids stopped to tell me that Zero the Hero had visited and had honked his bicycle horn and had given them a piece of candy. They jabbered about Zero all during lunch, and some of them announced that they knew who Zero was, but they refused to share the secret. I realized then that Zero had potential.
With each of Zero’s visits, the children became more receptive and Zero more expressive. Zero’s personality seemed to blossom. He started doing simple math problems, with lots of zeroes, on the chalkboard. The teachers were surprised, for they had known Zero for several years and this was the first time he had ever written anything. Sometimes when he entered the classroom, he would ignore the teachers’ attempted communications and would begin pointing out all the zeroes in the room. Zero found zeroes on the calendars, on the chalkboard, on the children’s shirts, on the floor, and sometimes even a teacher’s earrings were zeroes. He was fascinated with every zero, and since each one reminded him of his home, he would pause and place his hand over his heart when he found a new zero.
On one visit Zero was very tired because he had been flying all over the world visiting children, and he entered the room, not with his newly acquired trademark leap and pounding of his chest, but with dragging feet and bowed shoulders. He staggered across the room and dropped into the teacher’s chair, propped his feet on her desk, and wiped his brow. The puzzled teacher asked Zero if he was tired. He honked his horn twice. To make Zero feel better, she then had the children sing a song that they had learned that morning. As they sang, Zero was re-energized, and leaped out of the chair honking his horn ready to celebrate zeroes.
Zero was always happy to share Zero Day with everyone, so after he had slipped into his costume in the kitchen supply room (the library closet had become too risky, for there was an absurd rumor circulating among the children that Zero was actually the assistant librarian, Mr. Howerton), Zero would chase the cooks around the kitchen honking his goose horn. He would then honk at Mr. Smith as he passed the principal’s office, and then stop at the door of all the classrooms and honk his greetings, for most of the kids remembered him from their kindergarten days. Some of the teachers acted glad Zero stopped by to honk hello. His motto was “Honk until they smile.” Some people required more honks than others. Zero would even sneak up behind people in the hallways and thrill them with his horn and then give them one of his edible zeroes. Mr. Smith mentioned to me that Zero might have to have his horn taken away, but I said that I had heard that Zero kept a backup horn in a secret zero place.
On a day just before Christmas vacation, Zero brought miniature doughnuts, and the kids quickly surmised that the doughnuts had been Christmas tree ornaments in Zeroland. But when the kids started eating the doughnuts, Zero was shocked. He started banging his head on the wall; he could not believe that the children would eat the ornaments from his Christmas tree. Zero protested by pacing back and forth, shaking his head, and throwing his arms in the air and stomping his feet—but this simply caused the kids to giggle and eat faster. Then Zero walked over to the classroom Christmas tree. He started rubbing his stomach and sniffing the ornaments. The kids continued to laugh at his antics until one perceptive little fellow shouted through a mouthful of doughnut, “He’s gonna eat our decorations!” Some of the kids offered Zero the rest of their doughnuts, but he seemed determined (even though he didn’t have a mouth) to taste a peppermint ring made of red and white construction paper. Mrs. Wells came to the rescue: “Children, this would be the perfect time to give Zero the present we made for him,” and they shouted in agreement. They gave Zero a cardboard zero all of them had signed and had sprinkled with gold glitter. Zero held the glittering zero in his hand, wiped his eyes with his cape, and honked his horn again and again really fast.
The rumor that I was zero continued to grow. One day while I was on lunch duty, a table of kindergarteners informed me that they had proof that I was Zero. They had observed a beard under Zero’s disguise and had noticed a red mark on my face that they believed to be caused by the mask. They also realized that Zero and I had never appeared in the same room together. I told them that Zero’s feelings would be hurt if he knew that they thought he was a phony. To prove that I was not Zero, I promised I would come to their room to meet the hero the next time he visited. When I heard the horn honking on the next Zero Day, I hurried to the kindergarten room. There were several astonished small faces as Mrs. Wells introduced me to Zero—who appeared to be shorter and heavier (approximately the same size as Mr. Smith) than the last time I saw him. As I shook the hero’s hand, I told him that the kids talked about him all of the time, that they were always excited about his visits, and that he deserved a raise. At lunch that day the previous doubters among the kindergartners did not hesitate to tell me that I wasn’t Zero. One of them commented, “He’s from another world.” The others agreed.
Zero had fun one day out of ten, but I was having fun every day. Sure, everyone made a big fuss about Zero, but what did he ever do beside point at zeroes and honk that cursed horn? Although I wasn’t as dynamic as Zero, I was doing okay for a mere earthling. I had memorized the library number of dozens of children, volunteered to work an extra hour of lunch duty each day, awed the boys by kicking the playground balls over the moon, spun the merry-go-round faster than a speeding bullet, and was dating a Lois Lane who taught at the school. I was also completing the last semester of a master’s program and was teaching in an adult education classroom two evenings each week. More importantly, I had watched the seasons change, not by looking out the door of a truck bay, but, rather, by watching the hallway decorations change from a rainbow, to fall leaves, to jack-o-lanterns and black cats, to turkeys and pilgrims, and then to peppermint sticks and snowflakes. And instead of watching people grow old, I was watching people grow up, and I was watching them enjoy time rather than selling it. I visited the classrooms during holiday parties, celebrated with the kids when Mark McGuire broke the homerun record, and was on lunch duty the December day the kids stood and cheered when Mr. Smith announced that school was letting out early due to a possible ice storm.
Superheroes never need cash, but I was going broke. After taxes and insurance were deducted, my monthly paychecks were only about seven hundred dollars. This paid my rent, my utilities, and my truck payment. My earnings from my part-time job teaching adult basic education bought my gas and groceries. However, this part-time work unexpectedly led to a full-time teaching job. The salary of this new position exceeded what I had earned at the factory, and it included full benefits and career ladder—all within three blocks of my apartment. I had gone to college for ten years to be a teacher, and this position was obviously too good to turn down, but it wasn’t a simple decision. As I considered the job change, I had to admit I was surviving, paying my bills, having fun, and had making a lot of little friends. But I had to think about the future, and I couldn’t work for these low wages for the rest of my life. In January I turned in my two-week notice to Smith, and the school board graciously released me from my contract.
The last day I appeared as Zero was the 100th day of school, and since 100 has double zeroes, this was traditionally the last time that he visited each year. The kindergarten teachers arranged a party to celebrate the number 100 and to thank zero for his dedication to this much under-rated number. During the party the kids ate cake and drank Kool-Aid, and Zero had his photograph taken with each of them. Many gave him thank-you cards, several hugged him and told him good-bye, and some were crying. Zero was very quiet, for some things can’t be said by honking a horn.
When the party was over, I hurried to the kitchen to get out of the suit for lunch duty. I pulled off the moistened mask, dried my eyes, and tried to rub away the red marks pressed into my face. I untied the cape and stepped out of the suit, stuffed Zero into his box, and carried the box to the library. Standing alone in the dusky quiet of the supply room, I took out the horn and honked it once. The room seemed to forbid such outbursts, so I gave the horn several hard squeezes. Its playful, garrulous tone seemed to unsettle the dust and startle the shadows, and I promised myself that I would take the tone of the horn with me. I then dropped the horn into the box, folded the four tattered flaps over one another, and placed the box on the shelf where I had found it only months before.
Phillip Howerton holds a PhD in American literature and rhetoric and composition from the University of Missouri-Columbia. His essays, reviews, and poems have appeared in numerous journals and books. He is a co-founder and co-editor of Cave Region Review, general editor of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies, and owner of Cornerpost Press. His poetry collection, The History of Tree Roots, was published by Golden Antelope Press in 2015, and his survey of Ozarks literature, The Literature of the Ozarks: An Anthology, was published by University of Arkansas Press in February of 2019, a project for which he received the 2019 Missouri Literary Award. He is also editor of the reprint of Thames Williamson’s The Woods Colt, which will be released by University of Arkansas Press in February 2023.