My first car was a 1976 Datsun hatchback. It was primer brown and ugly as sin. But she was mine, and I loved her – I named her Dotty.

You know how Ironman has that bionic suit that is an extension of himself? It is specifically made for him and no other. Well, Dotty was just like that for me. The car had so many quirks and issues that I was the only one who could operate her.

Dotty’s radio did not work. No matter. I put a boom box in the front seat, and it chewed through D batteries weekly as I listened to mix tapes while I drove. Of course Dotty did not have air conditioning or heat, but neither were necessary because I lived by the beach.

When I wanted to back up, it was necessary to put the car in first gear and move forward a few inches. Then, and only then, would Dotty consider moving backward.

The windshield wipers operated by knob. If I pulled the knob, the wipers came on; push the knob, the wipers went off. One day I drove Dotty to San Diego during a light Southern California rainfall. I pushed and pulled my way along Interstate 5 until I pulled and ended up with the wiper knob in my hand.  The wipers stayed on for the rest of the drive, and I rolled through sunny San Diego with my windshield wipers popping across the glass at full speed.

To fix the perpetually running wipers, I found the fuse box and removed the little glass tube that powered them. After that, any time I needed to use the wipers I had to scramble to remember where I kept the glass tube.

Dotty had a slow leak. I learned how to check my own oil, and carried around extra oil to top off whenever she needed it.

I also kept a stash of wire hangers in the car to tie the muffler. Dotty had a tendency to drop her muffler as I drove. One second I would be happily driving along, the next second I would hear a sickening scraping sound. The muffler dragged along the ground, sparking as it went.

When I drove Dotty, I taught elementary school in Wilmington, a rough harbor town with a high crime rate. One day I accidentally left the keys in the door of my car. I didn’t realize they were missing until I went out to my car after work, and there they were, dangling in the door. In all likelihood, a car thief walked past my car, took a look at it and said, “Nope.”

After a dutiful year of service, Dotty finally suffered a cracked head. I decided it was time to spring for a new car — I got a Saturn. The salesman tried to upgrade me to an automatic with power windows and leather interior, but I could care less. The fact that the car started and came with functioning windshield wipers was enough of an upgrade.

Dotty gave me mobility and a sense of freedom. But in the process of nursing that jalopy down the road, I also got the gift of self-reliance.

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