Just as David Gasperson was set to enroll at UNC-Wilmington to pursue a degree in music, he was called out of the U.S. Army Reserves and into active duty.
Luckily, he was able to sneak his guitar–by way of a chaplain–to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, while stationed there.
Having his instrument with him everywhere he went kept his mind on his interrupted future and more importantly, kept him from getting sad or homesick.
Gasperson–and what he brought with him on deployment–is highlighted in an exhibit on display now at UNCW.
The exhibit, “The Things WE Carried,” opened on Veterans Day and has helped kick off this year’s The Big Read of Greater Wilmington.
The annual event is part of a national program designed to revitalize the role of literature in American culture and to encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment. It is spearheaded locally by The Cape Fear Museum, which has partnered with a host of area arts organizations, schools and businesses.
Focusing on one novel, area organizations sponsor a host of events centered around the book’s central plot and themes. This year’s pick is “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, a series of connected short stories about, in part, the Vietnam War.
The title story focuses on Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the leader of a squad of soldiers in Vietnam, who carries with him physical reminders of an unrequited love.
From that story, the UNCW exhibit was borne.
A handful of the university’s student and staff veterans were photographed, with the “thing they carried,” by graduate student Toni Whiteman. The exhibit also features photos from deployment and a story about the significance of the objects.
“I felt really honored that they would give me their time,” Whiteman said. “It was really touching.”
Gasperson gave his time willingly after seeing a call for veteran volunteers on Facebook.
“I knew I had a pretty cool story…Taking that guitar was pretty hard. And it helped me stay focused on goals outside being deployed. I didn’t have to take a year off toward my goals. And I never got depressed over there,” he said.
Cape Fear Community College has a similar exhibit up in its downtown campus library.
“Ours is an exhibit focused on student items, curated by students, for students,” Catherine Lee, dean of the college’s learning resource center, noted.
A total of 16 students and employees loaned personal items for the exhibit.
Inside six cases are a number of supplies, uniforms and mementos, including a Bible that was carried in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Retired staff member Brig. Gen. Dan Hickman loaned photos from his unit in Vietnam, where he was a helicopter pilot.
“All of these items have a story,” Lee said.
The exhibits at CFCC and UNCW are just two themed events tied to The Big Read. Cape Fear Museum has its own exhibit, “Mail Call.” Up since Saturday, it tells the story of military mail and communication–from the American Revolution to current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Big Read happenings are planned throughout the area over the next several months, including panel and book discussions, lectures, film screenings and a World War II USO dance and show at the Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center.
It all culminates in O’Brien’s visit to Wilmington in early 2014. On Jan. 14, a welcome reception for the author will be held at the New Hanover County Library’s Northeast branch. The following night, O’Brien will give a lecture at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium.
The Big Read’s full calendar is available here.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or firstname.lastname@example.org.