It's quiet at Morser's Corner on Wednesday, the first full day of Ashland High School. Unlike past school days, no one is sitting here on a cement pad or standing on the dead grass underneath a stubby tree on the edge of campus and smoking.
What's keeping the students known as the "Morse Street Smokers" or "Morsers," for short, from taking their usual spot a stone's throw from the fenced-in track as teenagers have been doing for decades?
Could it be newly posted signs in the area that read: "To Whom It May Concern: No Smoking. This is a School Zone!" Or could it be that the Ashland Police Department has pledged to increase patrols of the street behind the campus after meeting with neighbors on Aug. 22 to see what could be done about the loud voices and other activities taking place in their front yards?
For decades, students have been hanging out on Morse Avenue behind the high school, sneaking smokes and stirring up trouble.
Gordon Hull, who was enrolled in AHS from 1956 to 1960, remembers there was a wooden fence that ran along the street and smokers in T-shirts and black leather jackets — "If they could afford one," he says — would lean against the fence. "They roosted out there the whole time I was there and were there before and after," he says.
Gary Bowles, who graduated from AHS in 1962 and spent a career working for the CIA, recalls leaving the campus for his first and only fistfight. "It had to be off school property and the north side of Morse was the closest place," he says.
Marsha Kaegi Duffield attended AHS in the late 1960s before moving in her senior year to California. Back then, she says the Morse smokers tried to look like actor James Dean. "Their hair was combed back with lots of goo and I was forbidden to be friends with them," she says. "However, once we got to know some of them, it turned out that they just very much wanted to be liked."
Or maybe it's that high school faculty is working harder to see that students are not breaking the law. It is illegal in Oregon for anyone under 18 to be in possession of tobacco products and if cited, there could be a $110 fine, says Sgt. Warren Hensman of the Ashland Police Department, who attended the neighborhood meeting.
The meeting was the result of long-time neighbors reaching a "boiling point" from seeing up to 20 students congregate in the street, says Russ Johnson, the high school's dean of students.
He says administration and faculty are not going to look the other way any longer and that smoking is a violation of school rules and a safety concern. "Smoking is not great for a teen brain," he says, adding that it's also not safe for them to stand in the street. "Drivers are not looking out for them."
Whatever the current deterrent, the students who insist on smoking within sight of the school on this morning have crossed the street. And even then, it's risky.
"Kids should not be smoking on Morse now because people know we're here, the teachers are watching, neighbors are complaining and people will get caught," says an 18-year-old who asked that her name not be published.
She spent four years at Ashland High and today she is escorting her sister, a freshman, to Morse Avenue to show her the ropes.
The woman, her black hair shaved on one side of her head, said that when she was a freshman it was easier to sit on a green utility box in front of an apartment building across the street from the campus and "toke a bowl" (smoke marijuana) then to have a cigarette before going to class.
But times have changed.
At 7:36 a.m. this morning, no one is hovering around Morse Avenue. A minute later, a girl with cherry-colored hair walks down the street with a cellphone fastened to her head. Suddenly, she pivots around and waves with her free hand, yelling into the phone and down the block, "Hey, I'm here. Down the street, yo!" A guy in saggy shorts joins her and they go around the corner to Blaine Street.
Slowly, other students arrive. Most bolt toward the school buildings, but about a dozen head the opposite way, past a yellow house with a pristine white picket fence to a gravel parking lot. They cluster in front of the curb next to two abandoned TV sets and light up their cigarettes.
A junior girl says she goes to Morse Avenue to smoke and get away "from the mean and weird kids" on campus.
There are hugs when someone joins the group but some of the older students stand away from the incoming freshman, some so small that even their puffed-up black baseball caps and skateboards don't make them taller than 5 feet.
"I don't like hanging out with freshmen," says a redhead, his cigarette stealthily in his cupped hand by his side.
At 7:56, minutes before the bell will call students inside, only a few have started to migrate toward campus. Then the herd hears beep, beep, beep and everyone except the woman who graduated in June heads to campus.
"I told my sister to go to all of her classes, because it's harder to make up [work] than to just do it when it's due," she says. "I told her to turn in all her homework, do what's important first and then play. And to smoke at home."
At 8:05, a guy with a sleeveless T-shirt torn from his shoulder to the hem, returns to the street. Slowly, six others report that they are skipping the assembly and have time to kill.
Then, a student wearing a black top hat arrives in a white truck and parks on Morse Avenue. Some of the students then walk around the corner and stand in the middle of Blaine Street.
Watching the scene is Ken Hopper of Medford. The 62-year-old is waiting in his truck to help his son repair a porch and he's shaking his head.
He says he started smoking when he was in the sixth grade, back when he could buy a pack of 20 cigarettes from a vending machine for 25 cents. Now, a pack costs $6 and he thinks underage students get their parents to buy cigarettes for them.
He quit when he was 22 and says it was the hardest thing he has ever done.
If he could give any advice to the students in front of him, he says it would be: "It's all a great adventure when you're young, but don't buckle to peer pressure or think it's cool to smoke. Resist the pressure. It's the most preventable thing that can kill you."
Reach Daily Tidings reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.