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Eric's Heroes: The bagpiper who plays at sunset

Neil Hubbard salutes the sunset at the Golfclub at Newcastle. KOMO News photo

NEWCASTLE, Wash, -- There are three sounds that stir our souls, that make us stop to reflect and remember what it feels like to be human.

The sound of taps played on a bugle.

The sound of children laughing.

And the haunting, otherworldly harmonics of that strangest of instruments, the bagpipe.

Every night, from May through September, Neil Hubbard, dressed in a kilt, walks slowly to the top of a little knoll facing the clubhouse of the Golfclub at Newcastle, with the glory of the Pacific Northwest glistening behind him and plays his pipes.

The sound covers the fairways and greens like an old tartan blanket. The gentle echo rolls up into surrounding hills like a fog of forgotten memories. Diners at the clubhouse stop eating for a moment. Golfers pause before putting. It is a beautiful, soulful sound, and it is irresistible.

Those moments when everything is perfect and the instrument works its magic, are earned in the Issaquah Brewhouse, where those who've surrendered to the siren song of the pipes gather to pay their dues in the form of practice. Lots of practice.

Neil has been playing the bagpipes since he was 12.

He knows, better than most, that his chosen instrument of expression is the one that's played when the occasion is bigger than us. Funerals. Weddings. When we most need to search our souls, only the pipes will do.

"The bagpipe is not an easy instrument to play", said Neil. "It is physically difficult. There is a lot of air pressure and air that is required and the finger work is pretty intricate. I have been playing almost 23 years, and I still take lessons when my teacher and I can sync up. I'm really lucky , I get to do this full time now, I get to do what I love to do full time."

And so every night, with his back to one of our most stunning vistas he offers his gift to the world, and exquisite evenings are transformed into "perfect" ones.

It's become a Newcastle tradition. No night here is complete without it. People stop what they're doing. They listen. Many of them come just to hear Neil.

I asked Neil, "When you're up there, you're on that hill, and you know people are listening... what are YOU thinking about?"

He looked out at Lake Washington in the distance, and Seattle, with the Olympics far off behind. "Gratitude," he said. "Yeah, because, you know, look…"

He swept his arm in front of him. "I'm just glad to be here."

Neil isn't aware of it, but every night, a half-mile away, the Rheder family, like so many families, hears the echo of Neil's work, and it carries a special meaning.

A little girl named Charlotte strains to hear. "Yes, that's him!" she exclaims.

"You know what that means," her parents say.

Charlotte pauses. "Yes, "she says. "It's bedtime."

Neil tried to explain the sound the pipes make. "It's soul stirring. It's a soul-stirring sound."

"And, you get to make that sound," I acknowledged.

"Yeah."

"Every day."

"Yes."

"For 13 years," I reminded him.

"Well, for 27, but here at the golf club, 13, yeah."

Times change and people change, and yet for some reason we still harken back to this ancient sound that punches us in the gut every time.

The tradition will continue at Newcastle. Night after night, Neil will do his job, which is, simply, to make us remember what it feels like to be human.

(You can contact Neil Hubbard and check out his schedule at this site.)

Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to heroes@komonews.com.

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