Journalist, writer and Central Asian specialist Thomas Goltz sends us this memory at the Azerbaijani Oil Baths of Bob Simon, who died tragically in a car crash in New York City on 12 February, 2015.
Naftalan, Azerbaijan: The stocky nurse with a double-set of gold teeth leaned over the double-sized bathtub and grabbed Bob’s wrist to take a pulse, dipping a huge thermometer into the vat of hot, brown ‘nafta’ to check the heat.
“You must not sit so deeply,” she instructed. “Your heart must remain above the oil level at all times, least you risk cardiac arrest.”
CBS 60 Minutes producer Michael Gavshon’s plan was to get star correspondent Bob Simon down to his shorts and in and out of the petroleum bath in a minute or two. But Bob kept on botching his lines, with the result that he had been wallowing in hot oil for over 15 minutes, while the medically-prescribed limit was 12 minutes—and producer Mickey was still not satisfied with the take.
“Take Five!” cried Gavshon.
“The Azerbaijanis are literally swimming in oil,” rolled the words off Simon’s familiar baritone voice. “And these oil-baths—they claim are good for everything from mange, scabies, syphilis, psoriasis, arrhythmia of the heart–and even infertility (in women).”
In his long and illustrious television journalist career as a ‘stand-up’ artist, Bob Simon was doing his first ‘lay-down,’ and I cannot imagine any other contemporary correspondent subjecting himself to such a treatment.
God knew what the physiological damage would be: after only five minutes in the adjacent tub, in which I had slid as an act of solidarity, I could already feel my heart palpitating wildly beneath the surface, and a peculiar hot sweat had formed on my forehead, a function that all the rest of my pores were desperately attempting to effect beneath the soupy surface of the oil.
And this treatment was supposed to be good for you?
“Take six!” growls Gavshon.
Does he want to kill his correspondent?
So popular were Azerbaijan’s nafta sanitaria in the Soviet era that the local Ministry of Health constructed a half a dozen hotel complexes in three different locations were nafta was found in Azerbaijan. Registrations for guests drawn from across the USSR and East Bloc topped 6,000 per day. Barren couples topped the list; a director’s office wall was filled with pictures sent in from gratified customers, along with photos of a surprisingly high number of twin children, allegedly conceived at the sanatorium.
Well, the Azerbaijanis might like to tout the benefits of jumping in a bath of hot oil, but before doing our shoot, I thought I might get Bob some information from independent sources. Accordingly, I contacted my pal Ed Lake, the first representative of a certain major American oil company in Azerbaijan and asked him what he thought.
Lake gave the entire idea a cold bath, as it were.
“As you know, NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement,” he wrote me in jest, and then got right into the technicalities. “I suspect that the correct English equivalent for what the Azeri folks are describing is ‘Naphtha.’ Strictly speaking, Naphtha may be naphthalene or possibly napthacene; both of these are linear-fused aromatic hydrocarbons, and are quite volatile (flammable)…It is thus doubtful that you were bathing in Naphtha derived from ground seepage, or in Naphtha at all (too volatile), unless it came raining down from a gas well which had blown out but which had not yet caught fire. With respect to medicinal or therapeutic value, my guess is that elevated temperature is therapeutic for some ailments and infections, regardless of how derived…”
Still not satisfied, I tried to contact a leading dermatologist, whose international adventures included checking out various skin diseases as appear on masterpiece portraits in European museums and who has a hideous skin disease named after him, focodermaalhypoplasia, which is not the sort of thing you want on your elbow.
He is also my late uncle, Dr. Robert Goltz.
“Your nafta reminds me of the coal tar or shale oil we used to use before the days of cortisone for treating not only psoriasis but eczima, but I haven’t seen the stuff in use for 50 years,” said Bob, adding that using any type of tar for dermatological reasons reminded him “of the use of the arsenic compound arsphenamine, the ‘miracle cure’ for syphilis discovered by one Paul Ehrlich in the early years of this century.”
“What about a simple piece of advice to all seeking relief from psoriasis or hoping to improve chances of impregnation by taking a dip in a vat of hot Azeri oil?” I asked.
“Try not to slip when you get out of the tub.”
Well, back in the tub, and Brave Bob Simon was about to become the first male in world history to get pregnant in an oil bath, or become a medicinal oil-boiled cadaver.
Then, blissfully, I heard producer Michael Gavshon shout “we’ve got a wrap!”, and I peered around the corner of my cubicle to watch the ‘talent’ emerge from the vat of hot goo after a full 18 minutes of immersion. Long lines of the thick, hot brownish fluid dripped from Bob’s every joint and body crease. He looked utterly spent from his ‘lay-down’ 18 minute piece-to-camera, of which maybe 18 seconds would be used.
Haha, hoho, heehee! We all laughed, and Bob grinned.
Only in retrospect did I really get it.
Believing in his producer and believing in this story, Bob Simon had subjected himself to an extended immersion in cooking-oil out of general principle.
When the attendant took a flat wooden stick and began scraping off accumulated oil collected in under-arm hair and around certain joints, including toes, Bob’s grunts turned into howls of pain and then a tormented wail of rage and despair–and I knew the reasons why.
It would be a long, sticky ride back to the ‘booming’ oil capital of Baku that night: the adventurous 60 Minutes correspondent had just been informed that oil-rich Azerbaijan’s one working nafta sanitarium had no running water that day, and that the final clean up would be effected with rough paper towels.
I am certain that in Bob’s long and wonderful career, there must have been greater and more profound moments.
But this was mine with him: watching a trooper in action.
(And did I mention his hoovering down mouthfuls of raw, out-of-the-gut, pre-cured Beluga caviar in the illegal Baku fish-market that would twist Bob’s stomach for days? Mebbe not…but perhaps that is a Bob Simon story for another day…)
Thomas Goltz can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org