Above the din of children shouting and yelling and splashing at the Victor E. Benstead Plunge in Torrance, three words are clearly heard.
"Hey, hey, HEY!"
Children freeze, slowly turn their heads and see an index finger pointed accusingly in their direction.
Finally, a pudgy boy points meekly at himself and whispers, "Me?"
The accusing finger wags and the boy slowly approaches the man wearing red shorts, sunglasses and a dark tan.
"Don't run!" the lifeguard says. "Walk."
The boy nods, smiles and walks very slowly to the edge of the pool. Then he jumps in.
So goes a typical exchange repeated throughout the day at the Benstead Plunge--named after a city councilman of the 1950s--where an afternoon of aquatic frolicking costs 90 cents for children and $1.15 for adults.
Kathy Wilson, pool manager, said that between 200 and 300 children and about 100 adults use the pool seven days a week for afternoon recreational swimming. (Weekday mornings are reserved for swimming lessons, and evenings are designated alternately for teens and adults.)
On a recent afternoon, with the temperature in the mid-70s and a slight breeze blowing, about 200 youngsters were splashing about in the 50-by-20-meter pool, practically drowning out the Top 40 sounds emanating from speakers.
Even though the ocean is less than three miles away, children keep coming to the pool to continue a rite of summer that has been going on since the early 1920s, when the first public pools opened in Los Angeles County and few homes had private pools.
Pool manager Wilson said some kids still prefer the beach, but most parents feel more secure leaving their children at a public pool because of the adult supervision provided.
Wilson, who has worked at public pools for 23 years, the last six in Torrance, said public pools also remain popular because of the swimming lessons that are offered and because they are generally less expensive than private swim clubs or YMCAs.
(At the Torrance South Bay YMCA, for example, use of the pool by non-members is $8 for adults, $3 for children.)
"I paid $4.10 for two adults and two children and we can swim all afternoon," said Martine Wooley of Torrance, who was at the plunge this week with a girlfriend and her twin sons, Jean Paul and Benjamin, nearly 3 years old. "Plus, kids can't swim at the beach."
At the pool, they not only can swim, but they can dive, too. Lifeguards manning two stations watched children as they awaited their turns to jump off the diving board while others simply dived in from the edge.
One swimmer took a running start from the deck before diving into the deep part of the pool, which is 9 to 12 feet deep. When her head bobbed up from the water, she heard the familiar words:
"Hey, hey. HEY!"
A lifeguard yelled through a white plastic megaphone, "No running off the deck!"
The girl nodded and swam away.
A few minutes later, another violation occurred.
"Hey, hey, HEY! No diving in the shallow end."
The child, who stood chest-high in the 3- to 5-foot-deep shallow end, nodded and waded away.
"They generally respect us," said lifeguard Diana Grant, 23, a UCLA student from Redondo Beach studying kinesiology, the science of human muscular movements. "They are generally a good bunch of kids."
Grant said three lifeguards usually rotate 15-minute shifts between the two guard stations. "You just can't concentrate too long on this many kids," she said.
As Grant spoke, a child came running across the deck near her. When the child saw the lifeguard, he immediately applied the brakes, giving her a shy smile as he slowly passed.
"They know," Grant said. "I don't even have to say anything."
Many of the children are regulars. Their parents drop them off at 12:30 p.m. when the pool opens and pick them up when it closes at 4.
"We are cheap baby sitters," Wilson said. "Where else can you get a baby sitter for 90 cents a day?" She added, however, that children younger than 7 or shorter than four feet must be accompanied by an adult.
Skip Jones, 12, of Torrance, was sunning himself at the edge of the pool. He said he got out of the water because his wrinkled hands were getting "creamy." He was watching over his two sisters, Jenny, 10, and Janessa, 8, after their mother had dropped them off at the pool.
He said this was the third or fourth time this summer that they have come to the pool, but he likes the beach better.
"You can use your boogie board at the beach," he explained, his freckles glistening in the sunshine.
Two cousins from Torrance, however, said they prefer the pool.
"You meet a lot of friends here," said Ronnie Taylor, 7. "Kids you don't even know talk to you."
Ronnie's cousin Tony Hebert, 8--who said he and Ronnie are really more like brothers--added that the pool is safer than the beach.
"My mom knows that if somebody tries to take us away the lifeguards will jump him," he said.
Tony then said he was going to jump off the diving board.
He jumped in and began swimming across the diving area to the board, a violation of pool rules.
"Hey, hey, HEY! . . . "