His wife urged him not to go to work. A passing car full of teen-agers called him stupid for trying.

But Vic Rock is a 20-year Treasury Department employe who prides himself on his loyalty. So when he heard on the radio that, snow or no snow, the federal government expected him to report for duty, Rock left his Waldorf, Md., home at 6:30 a.m. and arrived in Washington at 9 a.m.

That was the start of a frustrating Friday that Rock and thousands of other government workers wished had never happened, because two hours later they were told to go home.

It was then that downtown Washington, buried by 3 p.m. under 13 inches of snow, began to resemble an old newsreel of solitary figures braving the Russian steppes, straining against icy, snow-laden winds in search of subway trains and buses.

Some wound their way through the streets on cross-country skis, while others, protecting their faces from gusts that seemed to be made of ice, hopped rides with friendly strangers and volunteered to help free autos stuck in the snow.

And some, like Rock, found it hard to get anywhere at all. "This," he said at 3 p.m., still waiting at the Greyhound Bus Station for a bus to Waldorf that showed no sign of appearing, "is one cruel day."

Everywhere yesterday, there were tales of coping. There were accounts of kamikaze bus rides down 16th Street, and of bars selling drinks at half-price.

"I never knew Washington could be like this," said Jean Mathis, an Oklahoman here on business whose flight home was canceled. "People were actually nice."

With a bit of bravery and a hefty dose of humor, the city endured the storm.

Among the hundreds of travelers stranded at National Airport when it closed yesterday was author James A. Michener, whose flight to Austin, Tex., had been cancelled.

Wearing a pinstriped suit with a gold armadillo pin in his lapel, Michener was without a Washington hotel reservation, but remained philosphical about the situation.

"I think one takes something like this in stride," he said. "I'm going to sit here and think beautiful thoughts."

Michener, who is living in Texas while writing a book about the state, complained that he and other travelers had received little information about the closing of the airport and when it might be reopened. He had tried to make hotel reservations but found every hotel in Washington booked, he said.

So he decided to stay and wait out the storm with a book, bought at an airport shop, about German settlements in Texas.

Virginia's snowfall was helpful to Prince William County police officer G.W. McKelvey, who was called to the scene of an attempted robbery near Dale City. McKelvey simply followed the man's footprints through the snow and captured a suspect in nearby woods.

Police said that the suspect, 29-year-old Albert Pieter of Dale City, had tried to rob a gasoline station but had been frightened off when a snowplow pulled up in front.

"From a personal point of view, I'm elated," said Gordon Barnes, the WDVM-TV weatherman. Last November, he had told viewers that the best chance for a major storm this winter would be between Feb. 8 and 10. "I was 12 hours off," he said.

Barnes, whose method of forecasting based on sunspot activity is scorned by many other weathermen, acknowledges that he is not always right. But this time he came very close He agreeed, however, that the rest of the world has a point in deploring the storm, saying: "Let's face it, it's a damned inconvenience."

At 12th and H streets NW, a throng of people waiting for a bus in an entryway to the C & P Telephone building were offered sips from a bottle of scotch offered by a man in a blue overcoat.

Everyone had a taste of the scotch and within minutes the bottle was emptied, whereupon the man waved goodbye and continued on his way through the drifts of snow, to the cheers and thanks of the crowd.

At the White House, National Park Service employe Tony Savoy was making a third attempt with a snowplow to clear the sidewalks in front of the mansion, though no pedestrians were in sight.

"They told me to. I gotta' , " Savoy explained, trying with some impatience to get the plow out of a snowdrift several feet high at the corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

At the Sheraton Carlton Hotel up the street, Bill Clem, a maintenance man, was having similar difficulties.

"This is the sixth time I've been at this since nine this morning," he gasped, shoveling snow off the sidewalk in front of the hotel. "Every time I finish, I look back and the snow keeps piling up . . . . I'm really getting nowhere at all."

By midday in front the Mayflower Hotel, someone had built a feminist snow figure, a short and stocky creature clad only in a knit cap, a flimsy neck scarf and a button that read: "Men of quality are not frightened by women of equality."

At the corner of 15th and L streets NW, an armored car was stuck and noisily spinning its wheels. When a young woman approached and attempted to help push the truck free, a whirring blast of sound made everyone leap back in fright. Somehow the woman had set off the vehicle's theft-proof alarm system.

It was just one among many vivid scenes, some curious and some amusing, that occurred when strangers attempted to aid the unfortunate and the marooned. Earlier at the same intersection, for example, four young men had helped push a battered 1969 Nova sedan to freedom, then unanimously turned away to leave a Cadillac limousine spinning helplessly in the snow.

Most businesses seemed to close their doors at the same time that the government allowed workers to go home. A few remained open, however, hoping to lure business with snow specials. A sign in front of the Golden Dome Amusement Arcade near K and 15th streets NW proclaimed in bold red letters: "Snow Special! All tokens half-price!"

Inside, the arcade was empty except for one worker and two elderly women stranded by the snow who were taking their first stab at Pac-Man.

On Shirley Highway in suburban Virginia, the atmosphere became festive aboard a bus stuck in the snow when two University of Virginia graduate students passed around a Valentine's Day card intended for a friend named Ray and got all of the other passengers to sign it.

Then there was the story of an intrepid bus driver who wound his way down 16th Steet, past automobiles and other buses stuck in the snow, to make a safe arrival at L Street, muttering much of the way about the fact that Washington drivers just don't know how to handle the snow.

When the bus arrived at M Street NW, one grateful passenger stepped out and cleaned the bus driver's windshield with his glove.