It was recently announced that the old Fort Shelby Hotel, one of downtown Detroit's important abandoned skyscrapers, is going to be saved through renovation and reuse as a modern hotel facility. It will have 204 suites, 63 upscale apartments, and cost $82 million. The hotel hasn't been occupied since 1974. This kind of news is like a gasp of air from the lungs of a body already rolled to the morgue. It's a big deal.

In August 1967, my dad went to Detroit for the first time without his parents. He boarded a bus in front of the Kalamazoo Armory at about 8:00 p.m. and took the two-and-a-half hour trip across the state with a few dozen kids who'd all recently turned eighteen. My dad's low number had been read and he rode that bus with his draft card in his hand. Most of the other guys on the bus had already graduated high school and they had packed their bags not knowing whether they would be going right to their induction; they said goodbyes to parents outside the armory not sure of the next time they would see them, or if there would be any reunion at all that didn't involve a flag-draped coffin and a plain white cross off in a field somewhere. My dad was lucky: he still had another year of high school to go. The friends he'd grown up with that had already graduated sat next to him on the bus in somber thought all the way to Detroit, where they were to be weighed and measured and prodded to the army's satisfaction before getting shipped off to basic training. The bus was full of black kids, white kids, working class kids; all of them, for whatever reason, weren't headed for college. Dad understood his to be a temporary deferment; he had no college plans of his own and knew he would get hauled away as soon as he tossed his cap into the air the following June. Still, it must have been something to keep him sane on that long bus ride. They pulled up to the Hotel Fort Shelby at close to midnight.

By that night forty years ago, the hotel had already seen years of decline. 22,000 white people had fled the city of Detroit in 1966, and they and the many tens of thousands who'd fled before them took tax revenues, jobs, property values, property taxes, industry, and, in Coleman Young's famous words, "plain damn money" with them. That money, like the white people themselves, was resettling out in the suburbs in newer hotels, conference facilities, banks, shopping centers, office complexes, and factories built in places where middle class whites wouldn't have to interact with middle class or poor blacks. Walls were built to separate white suburbs and the black city. And all of this started before July 23, 1967, when Detroit's white police force raided a blind pig on what is now Rosa Parks Boulevard, expecting to arrest a handful of patrons. Instead they found 82 people celebrating the return of two Detroiters from Vietnam. They arrested everyone, and the resulting furor erupted into the most violent and deadly riots in modern American history. After thousands of federal troops finally quelled the looting and rioting, at least forty-three people were dead (most of them black), 467 were injured, hundreds of businesses had been looted, and more than 2,000 buildings had been burned to the ground. The riots received international attention. Alongside footage of the war in Vietnam, all over the world people watched soldiers in combat in Detroit, images of burning buildings, and M48 tanks rolling through the streets of a major American city, with the retort of sniper and machine gun fire. This cemented in the minds of millions an image of Detroit that remains to this day. 67,000 white people left the city in 1967. 80,000 followed them the next year. They just kept leaving.

In this context, I suppose it makes sense that the beautiful old Fort Shelby hotel would make an agreement to temporarily house thousands of drafted teenagers from across Michigan as they underwent physicals before getting shipped off to Vietnam. Who would book a conference in burning streets? Who would come here for vacation? Dad says the hotel was already a dump when they arrived, but it was far worse when they left. According to his story, those days in early August 1967 may have accelerated the Fort Shelby's inevitable decline as much as the 12th Street riots did for the city itself. The city those draftees rode into was still smoldering from the riots; the streets were empty and the salvageable buildings had not yet been boarded up. Here were boys about to go off to fight a war, seeing a city much like the ones their fathers saw in Europe at the end of their war: chimneys rising out of rubble, piles of brick and crumbling plaster; children wandering through blocks emptied of all their previous density. This was a part of the America they were going to be fighting for halfway around the world: an America that kept an entire race of people on slow simmer. Boys from Grosse Pointe might go off to East Lansing or Ann Arbor, but not Saigon; even rich kids without college deferments knew to provide the draft board with letters from sympathetic psychologists or physicians that would exempt them from service. Either way, they weren't at the Fort Shelby that muggy night, waiting for men who would sacrifice their flesh for some high purpose to decide their fate.

As they arrived they were told to bunk four in a room. Dad described to me the bedlam of the hotel's hallways. Room doors stood open while the boys inside rolled joints and discussed ways to fake various medical conditions the following morning. One kid insisted that sleeping with bars of soap in his armpits would ensure a high blood pressure reading during the physical. Another claimed pretending not to be able to piss when asked to provide a urine sample would work. Still others advocated feigning homosexuality or mental retardation. Things got really crazy when three entire floors of the hotel were flooded by guys messing with the fire hoses. Then they started throwing ashtrays through the windows and destroying the furniture. Almost everyone was drunk. Not everyone was crying, but they all managed to convey that sentiment one way or another. What could anyone have done to them? What worse punishment for these boys could there be than the fate already decided for them? Unable to sleep, my dad left the debauchery of the hotel and walked down to the river. Everywhere he looked there were other somnambulists of the draft, wandering the night in a city still reeling from battles in its own streets, walking along the river and contemplating the skyline of Windsor so close. Dad wandered like that all night.

Despite the riots, there were more buildings then. But my father, young and burdened by ancient thoughts, would have passed under and noticed some of the same ones here now: the Penobscot Building, the Guardian's deco pomp, everywhere the grandiloquent copper shadow of the Book Tower. I like to think of my dad walking these streets, ruminating hard on what fate his life would bring not far from the house where his son would one day raise his granddaughter. I myself have walked alone all night, but never burdened by thoughts that serious. I did it when I first moved to Dublin and knew no one and had nowhere to stay. I have walked alone all night in Manhattan. San Francisco. London. But I have never done it in Detroit. I try to tell myself it's more dangerous now than it was then, but my father did it while the city still smelled like hot charcoal in the rain.

At 5:00 a.m. the following morning, the temporary residents of the Fort Shelby Hotel were bussed off to the Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station at old Fort Wayne for their physicals. My dad hadn't slept at all, but he says he was in far better shape than many of the other guys who were still so drunk they could hardly walk. When they arrived at the station, they were told to strip and put their clothes in baskets lined up against one wall of a large room. The way my dad describes it seems almost improbable: thousands of men wearing nothing but their socks and shoes lined up like cattle at a slaughterhouse, trudging from station to station, turning and coughing at one and pissing in a cup at another. In the room where they checked his blood pressure, the doctors asked my father to step aside and checked it again a few minutes later. Without telling him a thing, they ordered him to lie down on a cot in full view of the line of boys waiting to get their pressure checked. My naked dad sat there for an hour while the line of naked boys snaked around him, and when they checked his blood pressure again he could tell they were not happy. They told him they thought it was "white coat hypertension" and ordered him to spend another night at the Fort Shelby and come back for another physical the following morning.

He was crushed. When he got back to the hotel it was in worse shape than he'd left it the night before. The furniture in the room he'd been assigned was all broken. There was piss and vomit in the hallways. He spent the day walking around what he remembers as empty streets. Down by the river the draftees congregated, still contemplating Canada. But to working class kids without money or connections, the proximity of that welcoming foreign shore so close was just torture. Dad spent that night sleeping in the lobby of the Fort Shelby. He was too scared to go up to his assigned room.

The next morning, it was the same drill: 5 o'clock bus ride to Fort Wayne, clothes in a basket, standing in line wearing nothing but tube socks and sneakers. Some of his buddies had been classified 1-A and were already sent away to begin the induction process. Dad still had a Class I-S deferment because he hadn't graduated high school, but after his physical it was a full-blown Class IV-F "not qualified for military service" deferment. The hypertension required a more thorough physical, where he actually removed his shoes and socks, and then the examiners discovered the brutal scar from a few years earlier when he'd cut his foot down to the bone after stepping on a broken root beer bottle in a river. That was a story I'd heard before, about how the back part of his foot was hanging by a thread of flesh and how he'd looked at it and seen the bone inside. His brother rushed back to their house to call 911 and eventually Dad hopped halfway back himself, screaming and holding his foot together until the ambulance arrived. The lesson of that story had always been "be careful where you step," but the severity of the injury instantly disqualified him from military service. Perhaps two days of walking had aggravated the old wound. That night, when they put him on a bus back to Kalamazoo, he knew he would not be going to Vietnam.

He was dropped off in front of the armory at 3:00 in the morning, and rather than call his folks he walked the four miles to his house. My grandmother was sitting there with me listening to Dad tell this story for the first time the other day, and she was shocked to learn he did that. "You could have called," she said.

"I know," he said, but I knew why he hadn't. There is no better time to think than when you're walking late at night. And he had a lot to think about that night. Dad didn't go to Vietnam or to college the next year. He got a job at an auto body shop downtown and a few years later he met my mother. I know the story would be better if he hadn't carelessly stepped on a broken root beer bottle when he was a kid, an injury that did not prevent him from walking miles and miles through the night but might have saved his life. I know this story would have been more interesting if it were all about his adventures in Vietnam, shirtless like a Sheen in the jungle. I know there are plenty of others who have stories from that time more interesting and perhaps, heightened by tragedy. But if some jerk hadn't thrown a broken root beer bottle into a river in 1963, I might not be here. And that boring little detail seems very interesting to me.