Late Thursday after getting off work, Pfc. Michael Reynolds, 26, a signal support specialist in the U.S. Army stationed in Fort Campbell, Ky., hopped in his white 2008 Mustang convertible, lowered the top, let out a few whoops and hollers, and headed for his past. Beside him was his newly found half-brother Sammy Watso, 18, of Paducah, Ky. They had met for the first time only a week before, when Michael returned from a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan. On the road ahead lay nearly 800 miles of pavement and a long overdue opportunity for Michael to learn more about himself, his father and a family he never knew.
He aimed the car for Clearwater and jacked up the music, playing everything from rap to Southern rock. The speedometer climbed to 90 mph.
"I was anxious to get here," he said Friday, head bent downward with a slight smile on his face.
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On July 6, Denise (Watso) Paul of Clearwater received a Facebook message from the nephew she thought was lost forever.
Michael had found her on the Internet and posted these words: "Well after all these years, I've found the part of my family that's been missing. My name is Michael, but was Samuel. You probably figured it out, but I'm Sam's oldest. I hate it took me this long to find y'all."
Denise wrote back telling him they'd been looking for him, too.
He asked for her phone number. He was in Afghanistan. He'd call when he could.
They planned a get-together for this weekend. Busch Gardens. Disney. A trip to the beach. Porterhouse steaks. Grey Goose vodka.
"We're going to jam 26 years into his four-day leave," Denise said.
She tied a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree in their front yard. She placed balloon flags around a hand-painted sign that read "Welcome Home Michael."
She told everyone she could about the soldier's homecoming and how much he sounded like his father, her brother, on the phone.
"I just wish he could be here to see him," she said.
• • •
Michael's parents, Samuel Watso and Stephanie Mangrum, were young when she became pregnant. Stephanie's father didn't approve and moved her to South Carolina while she was still pregnant. She named the baby Samuel after his father.
But Michael remembers being called Michael all his life. After Stephanie remarried, he became Michael Reynolds. The name change, unknown to the father's side of the family, had made all search attempts futile, but they kept trying.
"He looked for that boy every day," Denise said of her brother. "It weighed heavy on his mind."
In addition to Michael and Sammy, Samuel Watso was father to two girls, Jessica Ann Watso, 21, of Canada and Samantha Watso, 13, of Paducah, Ky.
One day 10 years ago, he was to meet Sammy, born eight years after Michael, at a baseball game, but never showed up.
At age 35, he was dead from an accidental drug overdose.
But Friday was a day to think about the positive.
When Michael and his newly found younger brother arrived in Clearwater at 4:22 a.m. Friday, there were hugs, kisses, tears.
They wrestled with their cousin Natasha Paul, 26. Later they went shopping. Denise, their aunt, bought one an iPad and the other a flat screen television.
They talked about the remarkable things they all had in common: Heights of over 6 feet; weights around 200 pounds. Dark curly hair. Deep, rich voices.
Even though Michael never met his dad, both had worked as bouncers in clubs. They loved snakes and owned ball pythons, a nonvenomous species known for curling up in a ball.
Both Michael and Sammy have tattoos of crosses on their right arms. It was the first tattoo for each, and each got it at age 18.
Michael is engaged; the wedding date is set for Sept. 10. As luck would have it, that is the anniversary of his Aunt Denise and Uncle Reinhard, married for 32 years.
"We're a family now," said Denise. "Nothing will ever come between us again. We are stuck together like Super Glue."