Tracy Browning wanted to drive a tractor. What happened 14 years ago made it darn near impossible.
On a July morning in 1993, a work crew was cleaning up the mess left by a powerful storm that swept across Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska the night before. Browning, an E-4 in civil engineering, was ordered to take a chainsaw to a fallen tree, although a crane that could safely move the debris was only 10 minutes from arriving.
Browning often wondered what his life would have been like today if nobody had been in such a hurry that morning, or if somebody had noticed the power line, taut as a bowstring, underneath the tree. But worrying would never change what happened.
When the pressure on the power line was released by a cut from Browning's saw, it hurled him like an arrow 30 feet into the air. Browning's head took all the force of the landing. He knew from the burning sensation in his neck, his difficulty breathing and inability to move, that it was going to be bad news.
X-rays confirmed his fear, revealing a break in the C4-C5 vertebrae. Just like that Browning was a quadriplegic, unable to move from the neck down, and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His lifelong dream of serving his country was over.
“The first thing you think of is that you're not going to be able to do anything. I figured I would have to sit around and somebody would push me from one point to another.” Browning went through the usual stages of grief — denial, anger, depression, and “hit rock bottom on just about every one of them.”
A year or so after his injury, sitting in his wheelchair, he managed to get hold of his hand rims and push. The wheelchair rolled a few feet and stopped. It was a small triumph, but from that moment on, he stopped worrying about the past, and started thinking about the possibilities.
When the toughest part of his physical rehabilitation was behind him, Browning returned to Winona, Miss., where he added his own living quarters to his parents' house.
Browning dreamed of refurbishing an old cabin and stocking the ponds on the property with catfish, bass and bream. He hired a tractor driver to move timber and clear debris, while he gave directions from his wheelchair.
Call it stubborn independence or perhaps it had something to do with man's innate desire to move stuff around, but it soon became apparent to Browning that he really wanted to drive that tractor himself, “to roll out of the house, get in the tractor, go anywhere I wanted to, come back, get out of the tractor and go into the house without any assistance whatsoever.”
There was one problem — no one knew of a way for a quadriplegic to drive a tractor. That was until Herb Willcutt, an agricultural engineer at Mississippi State University, built a metal platform mounted behind the tractor that could hold a wheelchair.
One afternoon, Willcutt took the rig to Winona to show it to the Brownings. Browning and his father, Robert, a metal fabricator with Anel Industries in Mississippi, liked Willcutt's design, but decided to build their own wheelchair tractor instead. “Tracy's father is a self-taught engineer,” Willcutt said. “In six months, they had Tracy on a tractor working a front-end loader.”
The tractor was a 33-horsepower, 4-wheel drive, New Holland with hydrostatic transmission, meaning no clutch was needed to shift gears.
The Brownings designed and constructed a small metal box which attached to the tractor's three-point hitch. The box could be lowered to allow ground level wheelchair access and then raised to a position for operating the tractor. The box is just large enough for Browning's wheelchair.
All the tractor controls have been transferred to levers inside the box, which Browning is able to operate with wrist movements. Steering is assisted by a gear motor. A heater has also been installed in the box for fall and winter work.
After driving the tractor for a couple of days, Browning developed a pressure sore. “It was literally beating me to death back there. Every time I hit a bump, the tractor transferred it to the box, and that was pounding me up and down on my chair.”
To add suspension, the Brownings used a shock absorber salvaged from a race car and fashioned a compression spring from a piece of rebar. “Now every time the tractor takes a bump and tries to transfer it to me, the box floats up and down. I haven't had a problem with pressure sores since. It's a lot better ride.”
Other modifications occurred over time. A bolt head welded to the bottom of the wheelchair slides into a slot on the floor of the platform when the chair rolls in. He's secure as long as the tailgate remains closed.
He added a safety feature, the three-point hitch will not operate if the platform tailgate is not up, after Browning failed to close the tailgate once and nearly went out the back of the box after cranking the tractor and moving forward. They added stiffener bars to even out the pressure on the tractor frame.
Browning's tractor attachments include a small plow, a bucket, forks and a grubber bucket. “We had to adapt everything to the front of the tractor because we can't use the rear implements when I'm hanging on the back of it. I can do anything except use my PTO shaft. (Browning has a Web site on the tractor, www.quadtrak.com).
Tracy uses the tractor to clear brush and move dirt. Recently he dug out a minnow pond for fishing bait. He is planning a garden with turnip greens, two types of onions and cabbage. He also transports lumber to his log cabin, which is in danger of being expanded into a good-sized home. “I was going to make the cabin my getaway. But my garage turned into a bedroom, then I kept adding rooms.”
He has hired a carpenter to do the work on the cabin, but he's usually right there helping any way he can. “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything,” Browning said. “I have done some things that I never would have thought I could do. I surprise people all the time.”
Browning says he owes much of his progress to his father, who also designed and built adaptive equipment that allows his son to hunt and fish, ride a 4-wheeler and cut grass.
One of Browning's biggest admirers is his personal assistant Leslie Wright, who started out as his employee, became his best friend and eventually came to love him, a feeling that is reciprocated by Browning. “Tracy is an amazing man,” she said. “He has a lot of drive. Sometimes he can get like anyone else and get to feeling sorry for himself, but I don't have any pity on him.”
A man who believes that anything is possible deserves no less.