Gary McDonald has been trying to become a legislative page for two years now, and today he watched the opening of the 360th Virginia General Assembly session with something akin to stars in his eyes.

Not that the 17-year-old high school senior from Newport News has reached his goal as a page.Instead, he "grabbed" at a temporary job working in the assembly post office -- a position he was thrilled to get.

"It's great," McDonald enthused from his seat at the rear of the House of Delegates chamber. "Just feeling the atmosphere and watching them make laws is really exciting. And besides, what could look better on my UVA (University of Virginia) law school application?

McDonald said he was also amazed to find that the 140 legislators who make up the oldest law-making body in the Western Hemisphere "are real people. I mean they're special and all that, but they're really just like you."

For House clerk Joseph Holleman, who in one capacity or another has watched more than 20 such opening days, "the start of the session is always the same year after year. You have the same kind of confusion."

Holleman, no doubt, was referring to the scores of legislators, lobbyists, reporters, photographers, legislative aides, family members and just curious onlookers who jammed the State Capitol for the noon convening of both the House and the Senate.

The Capitol was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who copied it exactly from a Roman temple in France and made a few modifications to suit his architectural tastes.

It might be small comfort to the 20th century citizens who bumped and stumbled into each other today in the tiny halls and stairwells of the historic building, but Jefferson felt that wide stairways were waste of space and caused a loss of heat.

"That was his theory, and he was right as usual," affirmed Lucile Pregeant, supervisor of the hostesses who serve as year-round tour guides for the Capitol, the second oldest in the country behind Annapolis.

Proudly reminding a visitor that Virginia has produced eight U.S. presidents, the hostess supervisor walked admiringly around the famous Houdon life-size statue of Washington in the Capitol Rotunda -- "the only statue he ever posed for."

In the House chamber, however, Speaker John Warren Cooke was almost as imposing a figure as he rapped his gavel above the din of legislative conversation. He took the roll for delegate attendance and helped engineer an elaborate parliamentary ritual that paved the way for the arrival of the Senate and the governor for the latter's opening day address.

Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), taking advantage of a lull in proceedings, introduced Paige M. Brown, Miss Virginia, who was making an appearance on the floor of the House to promote a joint business-government litter prevention program.

"What does she have to do with litter?" someone whispered from the bach of the chamber to no one in particular.

"She's one of a litter of seven," responded Del. Clinton Miller (R-Shenandoah) out of earshot of all but a few.

Despite time for wisecracks, it was clear today that the pace of the General Assembly already is frantic. With more than 250 bills prefiled, legislative leaders are predicting that the lawmakers may be asked to act in one way or another on about 2,000 measures

Rushing into "Chicken's," the Capitol snackbar and nickname for the woman who runs it, Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) accidentally knocked over a coatrack piled high with the coats of his colleagues. All were trying to grab a hurried bite to eat before dashing off to committee meetings in the afternoon.

Freshmen legislators. like Dels. Gladys Keating (D-Arlington) and Robert L. Thoburn (R-Fairfax), said they had learned a lot during their first session last year and are now quite at ease with Richmond's law-making process.

Hugh McDiarmid, husband and acknowledged help-mate to Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid (D-Fairfax), played gracious host to a visitor to his wife's comfortable office in the new General Assembly Building. He recalled a time nearly 20 years ago "when Dorothy answered her mail on the hotel bed and shared a secretary with seven or eight other delegates."