Jones once traveled with a large lion which he locked in the bathroom of his hotel room while he made calls. After hearing the lion roar, the maids refused to clean the room, and the big cat ate or destroyed most of the room's furnishings, beginning with the bathroom door.
On another occasion in Mexico, Jones was in a pit with several boa constrictors, which he says are basically harmless unless you are a rabbit, when one of the snakes latched onto his arm. A man outside the pit grabbed the snake's tail and pulled. He got the snake away smartly—but several of its teeth remained embedded in Jones' arm. The man was convulsed with laughter. Jones grabbed the snake, doubled it up for use as a blackjack and chased the man, beating him over the head with the reptile.
Fighting weaves a zigzag pattern through Jones' life. He admits to being a mercenary on occasion. "I've run airlines in Latin America and flown planes in Africa," he says. "What else do you need to know? You can say we were engaged in antiterrorist activity, only drop the 'anti.' You're just creating outrages. Whatever the other side does, you do just a little worse."
Jones has had a lifelong fascination with airplanes. He now has three—a Beechcraft Baron, a Cherokee Six, a big twin-engine Fairchild propjet—plus a helicopter. He began flying in 1939 and logged some 20,000 hours before he tired of counting. Between 1963 and 1967 his logbooks show that he flew in 57 countries. And for each hour of flying he has two stories to tell, especially from the days when he was hauling animals; like the time he flew a load of fish to Tampa for some South American clients.
"We hadn't been airborne but a few minutes when one of the owners of the fish accidentally started a life raft inflating, which can be a dangerous thing in a crowded airplane. First he tried to bite a hole in it, which was something to see. Finally someone punctured it with a screwdriver. We had a fuel stop scheduled for the Dominican Republic, which just happened to have a fresh military coup under way. Needless to say, the soldiers were quite interested in our plane, since it was a converted B-25 bomber. I took off from there so fast that I fouled one of the engines. One of the passengers was pounding me on the back and screaming hysterically while pointing out the window at the engine, which was putting out some ominous-looking smoke. Then we ran into a hurricane over Miami, landed and had to take off again because the fish were in danger of spoiling. When we got over Tampa the tower refused to believe anyone could be flying in that weather. They thought it was a prankster on the radio. We finally made it. I won't even go into the trouble we had with the customs officials who blocked our plane with their car at one point in Miami, until I revved up one of the props and got the plane moving. The prop would have made scrap iron out of that car. Earlier the customs people were hinting around to see if I would be interested in bombing Cuba."
Jones is always working under an overload or self-imposed stress; he is so furious when he hears of a competitor downgrading his Nautilus machines that much of his day is spent explaining how he is going to defeat his business enemies. At a recent convention the competition installed one of its machines in a hotel lobby and went out for an evening of conviviality. Imagine their surprise when they returned to the hotel at 2 a.m. and discovered their machine disassembled and spread out on the lobby floor with Arthur Jones and several of his assistants taking photographs of the parts.
In 1968 Jones was at least $500,000 in debt after an ill-fated wild animal moviemaking scheme in Rhodesia ended in a squabble with the government and the confiscation of $1,670,000 worth of his equipment and belongings, including two airplanes and a helicopter. Rhodesia claimed the seizure was to settle Jones' debts. Jones, who insists he was square with Rhodesia, called it theft.
"Well," said wife Liza after they arrived back in the U.S., "what do we do now?"
"I can go to General Motors or Ford because they're the only ones who can afford me," said Arthur. "They'll say, 'What do you do?' And I'll say, 'Anything you want, better than anyone you've ever had.' They'll say, 'How much do you want?' I'll say, "Well, half a million to start. That will about pay my debts. But after six months I will need a raise.' And that will end that conversation."
Instead Jones borrowed $2,500 from a sister and built a machine he dubbed "The Blue Monster." It was the first practical Nautilus, a pullover-torso model. Liza made the upholstery for it. Jones loaded it onto a trailer and drove nonstop to a weight-lifting meet in Los Angeles, arriving with $7 and an expired credit card in his pocket. People were interested. In 1971 the Kansas City Chiefs became the first pro team to buy the machine, and Jones says a year or so later he turned down $15 million from a group of investors who wanted 49% of his company.