Above all, Jones is a man in search of an audience, a raconteur who dominates whatever stage he is on. He finds no need to be humble and offers no apology. What other men would regard as gross defeats he sees as victories.
"I've done 50 things in my life, any one of which another man would give anything to have done once," says Jones. "I've been the length of the Congo, Nile and Amazon. I've captured an adult crocodile and an African elephant. I've invented a camera mount that is so steady you can use it from a helicopter flying in a whirlwind and the picture will be in focus. I've run a jeep into a tree at 60 mph, been bitten by poisonous snakes 24 times, and hundreds of times by nonpoisonous snakes, survived a couple of plane crashes that weren't my fault, been chewed up by a lion and several other cats and been shot six times, axed once and stabbed on occasion. It's been exciting."
The Jones face tells the story of that excitement. His head has a perpetual forward tilt, as if he were peering over the top of eyeglasses, courtesy of a broken neck suffered when a lion bit him. He smokes cigarettes incessantly and gets little sleep. But Jones has the muscular body of a 25-year-old. He gives the appearance, perhaps deliberately, of a man a moment away from violence.
There is reason: Jones is always ready with countless tales of enemies and murky plots against him. Without smiling he says, "I've killed 600 elephants and 73 men in my life, and I'm more sorry about the elephants." Among the men who know Jones best, none will dispute his stories of mayhem—but most feel they are told for theatrical effect like, say, wearing sunglasses at night. A typical yarn has Jones becoming incensed when he learned a body builder had offered one of Jones' sons a marijuana cigarette. Versions of the subsequent battle vary, but the most-told one has Jones beating somebody unmercifully, with appropriate kicks and head smashings. One gets the idea. "I think it's a story that Arthur likes told," says an acquaintance. "It sort of keeps the townspeople in line." It also gets the attention of football coaches.
Whether his intention is to outrage or grab attention, a story by Jones evokes reactions ranging from terror to laughter. He has a deep, distinctive voice, one that viewers of his old Wild Cargo television show would instantly recognize. As he gets involved in an anecdote his ears wiggle, his head jerks forward and his shoulders twitch. His speech is more lecture than conversation, the words often coming out in capital letters for emphasis. Listening, one gets the feeling that Jones has never been wrong. If he has, no one has found out.
Jones' manufacturing plant in Lake Helen is a large prefab steel building covering three blocks, a place frequently visited by coaches, trainers, athletes, professors, the curious and, occasionally, the unbalanced. On a recent day there were several pro football players, Butkus included; a couple of college athletes; a university professor; a body builder who drives 200 miles several times a week so he can work out on Nautilus equipment; "Sammy," who has lost well over 111 pounds while exercising under controlled conditions; a former Mr. America and another young man who said he wanted to be one; and a visiting chiropractor who claimed he could increase a person's strength by giving him a neck massage. To all of them Nautilus was an irresistible lure.
Said the professor, Dr. Stanley Plagenhoef of the University of Massachusetts, " Jones must be a mechanical genius. It's hard to figure out these machines after you see them already assembled, let alone try to make them."
After they study the Nautilus equipment the visitors study Arthur Jones and listen to his tales of adventure, most involving animals, which he finds more agreeable and occasionally as intelligent as people. "I had a jaguar once who learned how to open doors," Jones says. "I've seen elephants show more sense than people. If you can believe this, I knew a guy in New Orleans once who actually kept a goose tied up in his backyard. Now you know that a goose can be just about the meanest, most irascible creature on this earth. Can you imagine keeping one in your backyard? And then the guy had the gall to get mad when my jaguar tried to eat his goose. Some people think I'm crazy, a maniac. But they leave me alone."
Until recently, Jones kept an albino crocodile, the predecessor of the one-eyed alligator, in a big tub outside his Lake Helen home. Jones also has a six-legged tortoise, a small wildcat called a jaguarundi, a slew of scorpions and baby pythons that belong to his 30-year-old wife Liza, who is an entomologist, a big lizard, plus miscellaneous spiders and insects.
Jones says he is averse to publicity, but that is a bit hard to take. Once one of his planes crash-landed when he was opening a snake show in Cincinnati. The pilot claimed he could not lower the landing gear, but there is a story that Jones paid him $1,000 to belly in the plane, a guarantee of front-page coverage. Jones denies it. Terry Flynn, a United Press International reporter at the time, remembers watching Jones prove why a mongoose can always beat a cobra in a fight. "He walked into a room where he had these snakes, flicked a cobra so it would sit straight up, then began popping it on top of the head, jerking his hand back before it could strike him. I was convinced he was crazy."