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Paraplegic Whizzes Around Town

February 23, 2000

ASHBURN, Ga. (AP) _ When health problems left him unable to walk or even sit in a wheelchair, Tabby Pitts refused to stay in bed.

Rigging up a gurney to a riding mower, he and a friend created what Pitts calls the ``whizmobile,″ a contraption that allows him to cook, drive, fish and surf the Web.

Over the years, the design has improved _ he began using a wheelchair as the base after falling off the mower-driven models a few times. As a result, his life became more independent.

Pitts, 60, plays guitar, repairs saddles and goes hunting with friends.

``I learned early in life that anything you can do, go ahead and do it,″ he says. ``If it’s something you absolutely can’t do, don’t worry about it.″

Residents of Ashburn, a farming town of 6,000 about 100 miles south of Macon, are accustomed to seeing Pitts cruising around, lying face down on the motorized gurney. Strangers sometimes do a double-take.

``They just look,″ said Pitts, a paraplegic since he was 10. ``Very few say anything.″

He was paralyzed from the waist after taking a flying leap off the porch of his family’s farmhouse in 1950. A few days later a blood clot formed in his spinal cord, leaving him without any feeling in his legs. Then in 1965, an infection in his left hip left him unable to sit.

``I just learned how to do everything lying on my stomach,″ said Pitts, who has ridden his whizmobile while fishing, hunting and camping.

Friends say Pitts is always upbeat.

``He doesn’t consider himself disabled,″ said pharmacist Chuck Skaggs, 65. ``If I had a third of the problems he has had, I’d be depressed. He’s always happy. He’s always kind to everybody.″

Welder Gregg Brown, who has built various versions of Pitts’ whizmobile, described him as a ``good ’ol country boy.″

``For somebody in his physical condition, he accomplishes a lot,″ Brown said.

Pitts got the idea for the whizmobile from a picture of a riding lawn mower in a Western Auto catalog.

``I got tired of sitting at home,″ he said.

He and a friend built the first one _ a gurney atop the mower _ with pliers, a screwdriver and a hacksaw.

That whizmobile tipped over in a lake, leaving him buried up to his neck in red mud and clay. His second whizmobile was also built on a riding lawnmower. It threw him on top of a doghouse.

Since then, he’s had three machines built by Brown on modified electric wheelchairs. The latest was built with suggestions from Pitts and John Fullmer, who heads the service department at M.R.S. Homecare in Tifton.

Fullmer said one manufacturer of electric wheelchairs used to make a version similar to Pitts’ whizmobile, but quit because there was no demand.

``This is the one and only I know of,″ he said.

Lying on his stomach with his upper body supported by his shoulders and elbows, Pitts navigates the motorized gurney with a joystick on downtown streets and sidewalks to shop and to visit his many friends.

Two years ago, his mother and father died within 90 minutes of each other in an Ashburn nursing home. They had been married 65 years.

``They were in the same room side-by-side,″ Pitts said. ``It’s like they were hanging on to each other.″

Their deaths were especially tough on him. They had encouraged and cared for him through the years; when they grew old, he cared for them.

A Western buff, Pitts has a sign on the door of his apartment in a seniors community that says, ``Tabby’s Bunkhouse.″

He’s a regular at church. He loves horses and has a collection of cowboy paraphernalia and about 2,000 old Western movies.

He cooks his own meals but gets help four times a week from a visiting nurse.

Skaggs gave him an old computer and taught him how to send e-mail and surf the Web. The computer allows him to communicate with other Western buffs and to bid occasionally for Western items offered by online auctions.

``I have had a lot of things in my life that I have enjoyed, but I don’t know of anything I’ve enjoyed as much as the computer,″ he said.

Pitts plays guitar and headed a gospel group for 12 years. He has also worked as a disc jockey at a local radio station.

Brown gives him space in his shop for leather working. Pitts supplements his income by repairing saddles and bridles.

When he needs even more speed, Pitts heads for his 1984 van. It has a lift that allows him to drive his bed aboard. Once he’s positioned behind the steering wheel, he locks the bed in place. He uses hand controls to drive.

``You can be handicapped in more ways than just physically,″ he said. ``You can be mentally handicapped, or spiritually handicapped. To me, being spiritually handicapped would be the worst of all of them.″

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