During a recent dinner party in Tidewater, a retired admiral complimented Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera Oberndorf on the city's efforts to avoid a repetition of the racially tinged violence that marred last year's Labor Day weekend.

Oberndorf said she thanked him and then thought to herself, "Now I will turn to God and pray."

The mayor's story reflects both the optimism and the trepidation surrounding a weekend that erupted last year into three days of racial violence after a mostly black crowd of 100,000 defiant young people converged on a resort city that had openly discouraged their visit.

A score of interviews with people actively involved with the planning for this year's holiday revealed a sense of pride and accomplishment. However, the discussions also suggested that no one really knows what will happen this year.

After the violence-ridden Greekfest 1989, city officials were roundly criticized for ignoring the area's black leadership, planning inadequately and concentrating solely on a police response to the gathering. This year, in a striking turnaround, city staff members and a biracial committee have been working almost nonstop to prepare for what they have dubbed Laborfest.

Young people are told to expect a festival with swimsuit competitions, a job fair, concerts and more than 1,000 volunteers, most of them black, who will be the equivalent of community ambassadors.

But despite the planning and nearly $200,000 in private money raised to sponsor the weekend, officials have also had to consider a series of troubling racial confrontations along the oceanfront in recent months. There is nervous anticipation.

"I'm feeling very positive about this year," Oberndorf said. "Good people have been working together to make sure that this year is a very positive experience for the visitors and the residents."

But Oberndorf said that she was worried that "people who are so filled with anger and fear . . . would try to destroy everything that we have worked so hard to accomplish. It is the vocal few that sometimes can drown out the majority. We cannot afford to let that happen."

John Hines, Hampton Roads area director of the NAACP, offered similar comments. Hines said that he was encouraged by the increased communication and community involvement. He added, "The one thing that is bothering {him} is the element that is bound and determined to disrupt this year . . . black and white."

Last Labor Day weekend, dozens of police officers and other people were injured and 100 stores were looted, resulting in damage estimated at $1.4 million. About 1,200 police officers and National Guard troops were deployed.

The students and visitors were initially held responsible for the looting and damage, but in the aftermath of last year's melee, local troublemakers have increasingly come into focus as catalysts for disruption. About 51 percent of the 158 people arrested by police last year were from Virginia Beach and the Hampton Roads area. Much of the property recovered was found in the local area, some just blocks from the oceanfront.

In addition, a recent series of apparently racially motivated incidents involving local residents has left many leaders worried. From May 6 through July 21, Virginia Beach police arrested 62 people in 44 racial incidents. While nearly all the incidents were misdemeanors of simple assault, disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, they mark just the type of scenario that city and community officials hope to avoid this year.

A list and description of the incidents provided by the Virginia Beach police paint a picture of sporadic racial friction:

On June 30, a 15-year-old black youth "bumped into a plainclothes officer. Tried to kick him in the head."

On June 25, a 43-year-old white man "fired a gun in the air in the vicinity of" black men. No one was hurt. The white man made racial statements.

On June 23, a 19-year-old black man "provoked a fight with a husband and wife. The victim was pushed into a plate glass window."

In July, the incidents dropped off dramatically as a cooperative effort by police and community leaders went into gear.

The NAACP denounced youth gang violence, and ministers began to accompany police on patrols of the oceanfront. Such cooperation was unheard of last year.

"There is a sense of camaraderie developing," said Andrew S. Fine, who is co-chairman of the coordinating panel. "People are taking the high ground."

"The majority of people are behind this," said the panel's other chairman, Harrison B. Wilson, president of the predominantly black Norfolk State University. "The community realizes that this event is important to the city and to the area, for moral reasons and for economic reasons."

Arthur Jarrett Jr., president of the Norfolk State University Student Government Association, said, "There is no comparison between this year and last year."

"I feel good about the process," said Jarrett, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, who also served on the coordinating committee. "It has been inclusive of almost all sectors of the community."

Jarrett and other officials touted this year's plan of having volunteers working to defuse potential conflicts as crucial to the weekend's success. In addition, the Virginia Beach police, who will be augmented by area police departments and Virginia state troopers, have said that they will try to isolate troublemakers rather than use mass clearance techniques.

Officials also are hoping that continuous, scattered entertainments will help spread out crowds, keeping them from jamming the oceanfront area, as occurred last year before fighting began between crowd members and police. There are no plans to place the National Guard on standby, a move that was seen as exacerbating tensions among blacks a year ago.

Young blacks returning to Virginia Beach may not think that they are in the same city that gave them a chilly reception last year.

In addition to the 1,000 volunteers, 125 plainclothes members of the National Black Police Association will help the city police department. There were no scheduled entertainments last year. This year, there will be a parade and continuous live entertainment provided at three areas along the oceanfront during the day. Saturday and Sunday night concerts are scheduled in the city's Red Wing Park, featuring contempory black stars such as the Good Girls and rapper M.C. Lyte.

Not everyone is looking forward to the festivities. Residents near the park recently contemplated filing for an injunction to bar the concerts. Some are also upset that streets near the oceanfront will be closed to traffic and that they will be required to have passes to drive around their own city.

"They took down the Berlin Wall and put it up here," said John Grandfield, who lives 2 1/2 miles from the park. "The troublemakers are the ones who are coming back. People are afraid."

Jarrett, who recently attended an annual black fraternity and sorority picnic in Philadelphia to inform students about this year's plans, said the response was mixed. Some planned to return to Virginia Beach to prove that black youths can have a positive weekend. Others "said they would boycott," he said. "The people who have bad memories aren't coming back."

Some students remember police officers in riot gear, some of them on horseback, beating back the crowd with billy clubs. Others recall police dogs biting members of the crowd.

Virginia Beach residents and business leaders remember different sights. Some recall broken glass and boarded-up storefronts and young black people taunting police, and sometimes throwing bottles, bricks and whatever else they could get their hands on.

"Speaking as one who had two stores looted last year . . . I'm hoping that we can isolate and placate," said Linwood Branch, who heads the city hotel-motel association. The hope is that people will have a good time "drinking from bottles rather than having to duck them . . . . We'll know Sept. 3."